Sunday, December 26, 2010

the calendars we live by

I write at the beginning of one of the holiest weeks of the year for a pastor, the days following the Christmas Eve services and leading up to New Year's, and then the Epiphany. I am reminded each year that this represents something of a confluence of festivities; some are sacred, others are civic. And all of it is a reminder that we live by overlapping calendars, ways of structuring time and finding meaning and purpose.

Most of us live by at least three calendars.

A prominent calendar in our culture is the rhythm of athletic seasons. Some of us live from the opening day of baseball to the first kickoff of football to the midnight madness of college basketball, then to the baseball world series, and then the college bowl games, the NFL Super Bowl and March Madness. And then the opening pitch of the first baseball game is thrown again. Within these seasons there is also the Master's Golf Tournament, the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament, and other assorted contests (such as World Cup of Soccer and the Stanley Cup). Many organize their lives around their favorite teams, and their psyches flourish or falter alongside the fortunes of their heroes. There are sacred spaces (Fenway Park, Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the new Cowboys Stadium, the largest domed stadium in the world are but three examples), secret societies (scouts, betting services fantasy football), and remembrances of shared history (note the remarkable Ken Burns PBS series on Baseball, updated this fall). It is not accidental that parents pass the importance of the sports calendar along to their children, and that participation in sports (which once were seasonal but are now year-round) becomes a priority and even an obsession.

A second calendar is our civic calendar. Broadly sketched, this includes New Year's Day, a time for making resolutions, and a moment marked by the possibility of reinvention. There is Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving Day. A recent addition to this listing is the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. These days are often profoundly important to some in our society, and less meaningful to others. The civic holidays may elicit deep memories of loss and sacrifice in some families, while others consider them simply as a respite from work and school. Indeed, this reality is at times the source of some tension among citizens of the United States. In our rhythm of life, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer and Labor Day its conclusion, and what happens in between (vacations, leisure, longer days, a break from school) is more significant for most that what occurs on the particular holidays that frame the season. Some will raise flags at their homes, attend picnics, and view fireworks (especially on July 4). Thanksgiving, in particular, is a somewhat ambiguous ritual, in that it began as a harvest festival and most of us now live at some distance from the profession of agriculture; in addition, it recalls the encounter between the European settlers and the Native Americans, who had their own traditions of harvest celebration, which were displaced over the course of time. In addition, Thanksgiving has become closely associated with the onset of Christmas commerce in general and "Black Friday" in particular. Alongside these recurring days in our national life are Mother's Day and Father's Day, which are certainly important within families, and the growing prominence of political elections, which, like athletic contests, are no longer seasonal but unending. This final dimension of the political calendar, the adversarial contest between political parties, have a deadly effect on our congregational and denominational lives.

A third calendar, for a Christian, is the liturgical year. It is, very simply, a way of marking time according to the life of Jesus, beginning with the anticipation of his coming (Advent), the celebration of his birth (Christmas), and manifestation of his presence in the world (Epiphany) and his baptism. The most frequently told stories about Jesus (his baptism, changing water into wine at a wedding, and his transfiguration) introduce us to his glory, but also prepare us for his suffering. In the season of Lent (from the anglo-saxon word lencten, the lengthening of days), the followers of Jesus enter into his suffering, and on Palm/Passion Sunday witness his entry into Jerusalem, the place of his final testing and, ultimately, his death on a cross for humanity (Good Friday). After three days, we believe that God raises him from death, on Easter. Over the next fifty days he teaches the disciples about God's purposes for the world, and on Ascension Day he returns to be with God, preparing for the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The Sundays after Pentecost (formerly Kingdomtide) move into Ordinary Time, finding their climax on Christ the King Sunday, which signifies the fulfillment of God's purposes on earth and in heaven, as Jesus is seated at the right hand of God...and then, we quickly move to the first Sunday of Advent. Within this liturgical calendar there are also significant days, such as World Communion, Reformation Sunday, and All Saints, and these are increasingly observed by mainline, emergent and evangelical Christians alongside their Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. In addition, some Christian congregations are sensitive to Jewish holy days, among them Passover, Shuvuot and Yom Kippur (Atonement), each having profound implications for Christian belief and practice.

We live in each of these calendars (sports, civic, liturgical), and each shapes our lives to some extent. We are recreational beings, citizens, women and men of faith. The overlapping of these calendars is one way of making sense of life; thus we watch football on New Year's Day or offer prayers for families on Mother's Day, or find spiritual lessons in our political dramas (God is on our side, or not). To reflect on the confluence of the calendars is one way to bring their realities to our conciousness, although it is probably true that, even for Christians, the liturgical calendar is the least influential for most of us. The flattening of the liturgical calendar to the celebration of Christmas and Easter removes the pain of pregnancy and the discipline of suffering from the equation, just as the negligence of national appreciation for military sacrifice is the result of wars that are not, in fact, shared sacrifices for most of us, but for the few.

Speaking as a Christian, and as a pastor, one of the great challenges for us is to recover the thickness of our story, the meaning of our faith and the adventure of the life of Jesus. We do not undertake this work in a vacuum; it is the work of the people, and it will be a process of structuring reality in a different and somewhat counter-cultural way. Thus, we will need to convince the parent of an athlete that confirmation is more important than a season with a team that travels to near and distant cities, and we will need to persuade a friend in the greatest generation that our Independence Day is Good Friday.

So, we have made our way through Advent, and we now live in the 12 days of Christmas. What is next? What if we took on the work of making this calendar make sense to our people? What if we invested ourselves in the adventure of following Jesus, and inviting others along for the journey? Is this worthwhile? Is it possible? Is there an alternative?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

christmas poem 2010

In this godforsaken world
a word is spoken
and it is good,
and in the fullness of time
that word becomes flesh
and it is real,
a vulnerable unborn child
brought safely to term,
a frightened refugee family
led by the spirit to sanctuary.

The promises are realized:
a child is born, for us;
a son is given to us
and again, in the fullness of time
his birth becomes our rebirth,
an outward and visible sign
of an inward and spiritual grace.

His mother holds all of this
deep within; she knows all too well
that in the fullness of time
the crèche will be dismantled,
transformed into a cross,
laid upon us, this gift, a reminder
of the ancient future instructions:

to repair the broken cisterns,
to restore the crumbling foundations,
to repeat the sounding joy.


Friday, December 17, 2010

the chaotic joy of a flash mob: do you hear what i hear?

You may have watched the scene, millions of people of all ages have. It is a generic North American mall food court. It could be anywhere, Denver or Des Moines or Dallas. And so you can easily place yourself there. If you have seen one mall, you really have seen them all.

Maybe you didn't really want to go to the mall today. But you needed something, or somebody needed something, or somebody persuaded you to do something you were not that inclined to do in the first place. To make matters worse, the shopping excursion became an extended experience, and so now you find yourself eating lunch at the mall. Eating a meal at the mall is not on anyone's "bucket list", things I hope to do before I die list, and it was not in your plan for today, but there you are. One child is eating pizza, one is eating a hot dog, it really doesn't matter what you are eating.

There you are, on a November day at the mall, lots of conversations and sounds in the background and then a voice, a very clear, distinct, compelling voice, an out of place voice, but a voice you have heard before. You soon recognize it as the beginning of the "Hallelujah Chorus". Where is that voice coming from? Then, from a different direction another voice, then a few voices, then people are standing, singing the "Hallelujah Chorus", and it has taken on a life of its own.

It builds, and gains strength, and all of a sudden you are no longer in a generic North American food court. You are in the holy of holies, in the unlikeliest sanctuary of all, to be honest God was the farthest thing from your mind, but yes, it must be true, "the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever, hallelujah".

Well, someone recorded all of this, at a mall, and then they put it on You Tube, which is a website that is pretty much an open forum about American life, from unusual babies and cats to embarrassed celebrities and politicians. It's on You Tube and fourteen million people have viewed it, and millions of others have shared it via email.

After I was encouraged for about the tenth time by friends to watch it, I clicked the icon...and sat still, and what I saw was pretty much what I have described; an ordinary day at the mall transformed into an occasion to glorify God.

And then I began to wonder:

  • What is so compelling about this scene? Yes, it is beautiful music, but it goes beyond that.
  • Is it the outpouring of the spirit in the marketplace, a reminder of the commercialism that dominates the last quarter of the year, when Christmas blends with Halloween and Thanksgiving?
  • Is it a mild form of protest, against a culture that often takes Christ out of Christmas?
  • Is it simply a burst of joy across our depressed economic landscape?
  • What is it about the "Hallelujah Chorus" at the food court?
It has become, for me, a sign, a gift of joy in Advent 2010, a parable in cyberspace of rejoicing with joy and singing in the wilderness. If we open our eyes, the prophet says, we will see the salvation of God. Our weak hands will be strengthened to do the work of God; our feeble knees will be made firm to keep going, our fears and anxieties will be taken away. Joy and gladness will fill our hearts (see Isaiah 35. 1-10).

The choir that day in the food court had of course planned for the occasion----in the voice lessons, the rehearsals, learning Handel's piece by heart. It was a disciplined act that led to the gift of joy. A flash mob is planned and executed, and yet it has an element of surprise. It is an occasion of joy, the fulfillment of the promise of the prophet:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom, like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.

A choir incognito, in a mall food court, can be a chorus of angels. God is always giving us a sign.

My prayer for us is that we will open our eyes and our ears, our hearts and our hands, to receive the gift of joy in this season, and then to share it with others.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

social media and advent

For at least ten years I have sent a daily Advent message to my congregation and anyone else who wishes to receive it. I wanted to briefly describe what it has been and is, because I am convinced it is an interesting platform to accomplish a number of objectives. It helps that I enjoy the writing process, and also that I do not take it that seriously. At the same time, I am constantly amazed at its reception; it has an audience of more than a thousand households and workplaces, and reaches many people beyond the church. The first daily message is sent on the First Sunday of Advent, and the last one on Christmas Day (or immediately following the last Christmas eve service). If you would like to receive the Advent message simply contact Carol Grinham at cgrinham (at)

I began the daily message as a simple group email. We now use Constant Contact, which I recommend. I put together a word document each day, and it is then formatted for Constant Contact and sent to a mailing list of subscribers. I always ask, in several ways, that those who do not wish to subscribe can simply let us know or they can unsubscribe, and we certainly understand. I really do want those who receive it each day to be willing participants in the shared message.

Having said all of this, the strength of the daily message lies in its unpredictability. The content is somewhat random, and includes humor, sports, music and the arts, comments about television and movies, a calendar, devotional and theological reflection, updates about our congregation's end of year giving, and opportunities for meeting community needs.

A word about each of these categories:

The humor is simply a daily joke or two related to Christmas. These are really bad and very basic Christmas jokes (almost at a child's level) and at the same time I find that people invariably love them...even if they have heard them before. The jokes can be found on the internet, and I also use the Prairie Home Companion Pretty Good Jokes as a resource. I often include one joke, sometimes two each day. For example: Why was Santa's little helper depressed? Because he had low elf get the idea.

I often list football games and basketball games in the calendar. This is somewhat unusual for a church publication, but it is a recognition that many plan their lives around these games. The Advent/Christmas season coincides with the end of the college season and the Bowl games. I enjoy predicting some of the winners, and also poking fun at some of the more bizarre bowl contests in out of the way places. Having attended Duke, and with a daughter who went to Chapel Hill, I also have fun with the beginning of basketball season. I make predictions about some of the outcomes, and this is also fun to report.

There is an abundance of really wonderful and eclectic Christmas music, and I often make recommendations. Dave Brubeck, Bruce Cockburn, James Taylor, Bela Fleck, the Robert Shaw Singers, Taize, Diana Krall, the Chieftains, John Prine, Kathy Mattea are a few artists who have made nice Christmas recordings. I will sometimes provide links via Amazon to a particular piece, or simply refer the reader to the entire work. For years I have made a habit of only listening to Christmas music during this season, but I am selective about what I have going on the in background.

At the same time, I also affirm our choir's Christmas music, and see this as one of the church's great strengths. It is a season to educate the reader and I try to point him or her toward a new work, or something in the tradition like the King's College Service of Lessons and Carols. And lastly, in relation to music, there is a vast amount of really awful material out there, and obviously these are musicians who are simply going after a share of a lucrative market. Of course this is subjective, but I would (and do) include particular artists in this category (Barry Manilow and Kenny G., for example). Readers disagree with me, and that is fine. It is all in good fun.

The Christmas season is a time that is ripe for theological reflection and exposition, and in substance this is all about the incarnation. The daily message is a way to introduce readers to Madeleine L' Engle("The Risk of Birth"), Howard Thurman, Karl Barth, W. H. Auden ("For The Time Being"), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others. Years ago I came across a superb devotional book, Watch For The Light (Plough Publishing House). It is substantive and ecumenical, and deep enough to return to again and again. And I sometimes find myself reflecting on particular phrases in hymns and carols, from "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" to "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".

Lastly, the daily message has a practical purpose: I want to update our congregation about end of year financial giving (in our parish this is often 20-25% in the last month, and so this is crucial), pledges for the upcoming year (encouragement for those who have not yet made estimates of giving) and worthy causes in the area of community ministry and global mission. Many people are very generous in Advent and at Christmas; in part it is the season of giving, and in part, for some, there are positive tax implications. This year our congregation has set three very practical goals for giving beyond our budget: gifts for 110 children in Charlotte through the Bethlehem Center; 10 tons of food for Loaves and Fishes; and $5,000 (to be matched with another $5000) for Haiti Microcredit loans, which will employ 50 women. It helps, day by day, to report progress and to keep these opportunities before those who read and respond to the email.

There are other items in the daily messages, and again the rule is unpredictability: fruitcakes and speed bumps, weather and politics, speed bumps and headache remedies, and even my annual recipe for the scrambled dog, a Georgia delicacy. There is ongoing advice about unplugging the Christmas machine and gentle reminders about when our services will be held. The form of the daily message is a series of notes, all brief and casual. We are a somewhat formal church, at least in worship, and so the informality helps us, on balance. The use of social media during this season, I have discovered, meshes with our church's strengths: excellent traditional worship and inspiring choral music; welcoming and compassionate people and relational groups; and cutting edge, risk-taking local and global mission. People want to experience God, they want to discover community, and they want to make a difference.

On Christmas Eve morning I send a prayer that I wrote years ago, entitled " A Christmas Eve Prayer For Those Who Do Not Attend Church", which has been reprinted in a number of magazines, along with the service times (for us, 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 and 11:00 pm). The last Christmas Eve service ends at about half past midnight, and the last email message is sent, usually Howard Thurman's "The Work of Christmas", with wishes to all for a Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

come, let us walk in the light of the lord: an interfaith dialogue in advent

It is an honor to share the message with Murray Ezring, friend, rabbi and spiritual leader of Temple Israel, our neighbor just to the south on Providence Road in Charlotte. It is remarkable that we share together in Advent, when we read and sing Israel’s promises and prophecies. Thank you, Murray taking part in interfaith Bible Studies with us over the past two years. We have worked through Genesis and Exodus and the Psalms together, you have welcomed us at the Seder meal and we have invited your people to our Easter Sunrise Service. Thank you for being with us now as we focus on God’s gift of hope.

Our dialogue leads me to ask three questions.

• What do the prophet’s words mean, “Come let us walk in the light of the Lord?”

We realize, every one of us, that as we walk this road we have not arrived our destination----every year we light the candles of hope and peace, joy, love and light, and yet every year we confess our for a greater sense of hope and not despair, peace and not separation, joy and not sadness, love and not resentment, light and not darkness. But, in honesty, we are a mixture of all of these qualities, and so we depend upon God, our refuge and strength.

• What do the words of the prophet mean for Jews and Christians who are friends?

What does it mean for Jews and Christians to walk together? For Christians, it might mean something like this: the light for us begins to shine in the stories of Israel’s faith…

• the voice of the Creator saying “Let there be light”,
• the appearance of the rainbow after the devastating flood in the time of Noah,
• the burning bush that caught the attention of Moses and led him to walk in a new path that would deliver his people from slavery.

This light, for Christians, gains even greater clarity when a star shines upon a village in Bethlehem, just a few miles from Jerusalem, when Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River and the light falls upon him, when he is transfigured, along with Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, when he says, of himself, “I am the light of the world”, when he says to each of us, “you are the light of the world”.
The light is the Torah, the sacred story of Israel, and by the grace of God it shines upon us. An interfaith conversation gives us the opportunity to say, first, thanks to our Jewish brothers and sisters. They are the root systems that go deeply into these lifegiving waters and we live and flourish because of them…and we remember that each character we will focus on in the coming weeks---Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, John the Baptist and Jesus himself---was a devout Jew who worshipped in a synagogue and waited for the promises to be fulfilled.

• And where does this interfaith dialogue take us?

This interfaith conversation challenges us to live out our convictions as faithfully as we can, so that others will be drawn to the light and life and love of Jesus, who is the prince of peace and the world’s light, because he seeks glory not for himself, but for his Father who is in heaven. And so with Jesus we approach all of this in humility.

And so, I appeal to all of us, in the days ahead, to hear and respond to the word of the prophet: “Come let us walk in the light of the Lord”.