Christmas Clothing

Christmas Shopping for My Wife

I gave up trying to buy my wife clothing for Christmas a long time ago.

Early in our marriage, I really tried, but I never seemed to get it right. Something that looked spectacular in the women’s department Burdines or Mass Bros (I’m dating myself there!) would be the wrong size when she opened it on Christmas morning. I never understood what colors were best for her; it had something to do with the seasons, but I could never remember which one.

I also learned that good clothing is expensive. I didn’t watch for sales the way she does and would end up spending more than I needed to spend on something she didn’t need at all.

On Christmas morning, she would do her best to let me know  she appreciated the attempt, but the look on her face immediately let me know she was making sure it could be exchanged the week after Christmas. As our daughters grew up, she suggested that I take them shopping with me. It didn’t help. I can still hear one of them saying, “What makes you think that Mom would really wear that?”

This year we’re giving each other a rebuilt dock and a couple reupholstered chairs!

Would You Really Wear That?

Better to give a book! This year my daughters will receive Lauren Winner’s intriguing book,“Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God”. She makes the rich metaphors of scripture come alive in fresh and imaginative ways, one of which is the biblical metaphor of clothing.

Her book was in my mind when daily readings in “The Upper Room Disciplines” led me to Colossians 3:12-14.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

But here’s the question: Is there a market for that style of clothing this year? Given the ugly, mean-spirited, vulgar, racist, and fear-mongering rhetoric of the Trump candidacy that is polluting our politics and dominating the news cycle, we could easily read Colossians and ask, “Does anyone really want to wear that?”

Dressing God

 Or turn the image around the other direction. I can imagine that when some well-dressed angels with designer wings in Heaven heard that the Son of God was going down to put on flesh and become one of us, they must have asked, “Do you really want to wear that?” (Read Philippians 2:1-8).

It reminded me of the lyrics of a song in Helen Kromer’s musical review, “For Heaven’s Sake.”

I’m nothing, I’m nobody, no one,
But Someone made something of me;
He put on my flesh
And He walked in my bones
And He saw all the grief that I see.

He knew what I know of tormentors, 
This haunting and howling within; 
The blood that can spill
And the bone that can break
And the flesh with the nail driven in. 

He hung on the cross as a creature;
Wearing my sin-spattered clothes;
And the pride in my flesh
Died with Him when He died
And my raiment was new when he rose.

 This clothing I wear with a difference—
It’s flesh that the King entered in!
He put there His love
And His almighty law
And it never can be what it’s been.

 I’m nothing, I’m nobody, no one,
I’m something in Christ whose in me;
And I’ll put on His flesh
And I’ll walk in His bones
And a part of His body I’ll be!

 So, what will you be wearing this Christmas?

Merry Christmas!

Jim

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Desperate Hope…Defiant Joy

Powerful words from very different sources have guided me to a deeper place on my Advent journey.

Tears of Desperate Hope 

The first word came from a friend in South Africa.  He’s a Methodist lay person, a leader in the business community, a white South African who was deeply engaged in the struggle against Apartheid.  Over the 25 years of our friendship, I’ve had the privilege of sharing the thrill of freedom in 1994 and his grave disappointment with the post-Mandela political leadership.

He would agree with Desmond Tutu who, reflecting on the current administration, said that because we believe in sin, we should not be surprised, but we may be disappointed.

Either ignored by the U.S. press or lost in the carnival of our Presidential nominating process has been any coverage of a political crisis centered around President Zuma’s actions which could have been a fatal blow to the economy.  My friend wrote:

We live in interesting times.  On Wednesday evening we were shocked and utterly dismayed….Zuma crossed a line in the most extraordinary way.  But people were galvanised, and everyone spoke out.

And this morning we woke up to an even more extraordinary turn of events!  Zuma has returned the respected former minister of finance to the position…It is an amazing defeat for Zuma…If the ANC insiders have managed to put such pressure on him, it will transform them in my mind from a weak set of thieves to the courageous guardians of the future we hoped for.  And it would transform this past week from marking when we finally went the way of Zimbabwe, to the moment we proved we are after all different.  And I would shift from shame and sorrow to immense pride and hope.  

Thank you for your prayers.  I write this with thick tears of desperate hope that the miracle may yet return.

I felt like I was reading one of the Old Testament prophets.  In the shifting currents of political corruption, economic disaster, and rampant injustice, they continued to pray, speak and work with “thick tear of desperate hope” for the miracle that would transform shame and sorrow into peace, justice, hope and joy.

The point of the liturgical season of Advent is not to get an early start on something we glibly call “the Christmas spirit.”  The purpose is to draw us into our deep, desperate need for the miracle of God’s love and grace that became flesh among us in Jesus.  We’ll never really understand the good news of Christmas until we shed some of those “thick tears of desperate hope.”

A Defiant Joy 

The second word came from my friend and colleague, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, the Senior Pastor at Foundry UMC in Washington, DC.

The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudate, the Latin word for “joy.”  The traditional readings include Paul’s words to the Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7) 

Ginger quoted Karl Barth, the most influential Christian theologian of the 20th Century, who did his theology in the tension surrounding Hitler’s rise to power.  Barth declared, “Joy is a defiant ‘Nevertheless’ that Paul sets like a full stop against the Philippian anxiety.”

The polls confirm that this Christmas finds us awash with fear.  Some of it is well-founded; some of it is brought on by what one NPR reporter called “the over-heated and irresponsible” rhetoric of our politicians.  Whatever the cause, our anxiety is as thick as egg nog.

We could deny the fear and use Christmas as an escape into a world where sugarplums dance in our heads.  But that would be an utter contradiction of the way the desperate hope of the prophets was fulfilled in the coming of Christ.

Joy is not a naive denial of what the world has come to, but a defiant confidence in what has come to the world.

Magrey deVega was in sync with Barth when he declared, “The church’s calling is one of melodic defiance. Our task is neither to fight nor to cower, but to sing.”  

On Christmas Eve we dare to lift our candles and sing our “defiant ‘Nevertheless.”

Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

May the thick tears of Advent and the relentless joy of Christmas be alive in each of us.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

Did Marco Miss Christmas?

Where Was God?

Article VI of the Constitution is clear that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.”  That means that questionable theology is not a disqualifier for election.

But when a candidate who wears his faith on his sleeve like a flag pin on his lapel starts talking theology, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to make a theological point.

Speaking a couple weeks ago in Iowa, Senator Marco Rubio said he was asked, “Where was God on 9/11? Where was God in Paris?”

That’s a good question. Thoughtful people are asking it again in the aftermath of another mass killing in California. It’s a gut-level question that goes to the core of what we believe and the way we live.

Senator Rubio’s response? “I said, ‘Where God always is — on the throne in Heaven.’”

Did Marco Miss Christmas?

Hearing that, I wanted to ask, “Did you miss Christmas?” I was tempted to send him a copy of my Advent study, “When God Came Down.”

The earth-shaking, life-transforming affirmation of the Christmas gospel is the fulfillment of the promise to Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)

Christmas is God’s response to the persistent, soul-level question, Why don’t you tear the sky open and come down?” (Isaiah 64:1) We call it the incarnation — real God becoming real flesh down here with us, among us, one of us.

We sing it in Wesley’s great carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.

The most important word the Christian faith offers in the wake of 9/11, Paris or San Bernadino is not that God is “on the throne in Heaven” but that God is down here with us in the face of human suffering, injustice, pain and death.

Not Heresy…Not Helpful

Placing God “where God always is — on the throne in Heaven” was the beginning point for the Senator’s theological reflections.

The question was how could God allow these bad things to happen? It always challenges us to understand that God’s ways are not our ways. What we may interpret as bad, and most certainly is in the case of Paris or 9/11, even that is part of a broader plan for the universe and for our lives that we are just not going to know the answer to. God’s ways are not our ways.”

Senator Rubio compared God’s hidden purpose in hard times with the way a child feels when a parent lets the doctor hurt them to receive a vaccine.

All that child understood at 3 years or 4 years of age is that my father and my mother, who love me, is allowing a stranger to stick a needle in my arm, in this case, some other region of the body, and it hurts, it hurts a lot. “Why are they allowing me to be hurt by this stranger? I don’t understand that?” But I understood. While that needle hurt for 3 or 4 seconds, that needle was going to prevent something much more dangerous and much more painful and much harder later on.

He said God’s promise in these difficult situations is “the peace of being able to handle whatever comes our way…knowing that all this comes from God and is part of his plan, which we don’t fully understand.”  

Setting aside the fact that God intends for us to grow up and not continue to be theological toddlers, what the Senator said is not heresy.  Lots of faithful people believe that.  It represents a branch on the Protestant theological tree that reaches back through Jonathan Edwards and the New England Puritans to John Calvin.

While it may not be heresy, I don’t find it to be very helpful.

As a pastor, there’s simply no way I could look into the faces of the people who are burying their loved ones in California and tell them that “all this comes from God and is part of his plan.”  

God Did Not Cause This…God Cannot Fix It Without Us

There is another branch of Christian theology on which I am willing to hang my soul.  It says that while God does not cause everything, God can use anything.

God did not cause the deaths of 14 people on Wednesday afternoon. I don’t believe it was part of God’s plan. People did that. But I do believe that God can redeem these horrendous events to awaken his people to become a part of his redemptive purpose in this world.

There was an unintended element of truth in “The New York Daily News” headline: “God Isn’t Fixing This.”  The evidence in scripture and in history is that God’s way of “fixing” things is to work through people who dare to live and act in ways that are consistent with God’s saving purpose for this world.

The Senator was biblically correct in saying that “God’s ways are not our ways.”  (Isaiah 55:8-9)  God’s way of saving the world is not the human way of increasing violence, arrogant pride, political power or overwhelming force.  God’s way is the way of radical obedience to the way revealed in Jesus Christ.  God’s way is the way of self-giving love revealed at the cross.  God’s way of fixing all the things that human sin has broken in this world is the way of grace.  It’s the way that was promised by the angel to Zechariah:

By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79) 

Listening for the Bells 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow faced Christmas of 1863 in dark despair.  His wife had recently died in a house fire and he had just received word that his son, who had joined the Union army against his father’s wishes, had been severaly injured in battle.  Searching for a word of hope for his own soul, he wrote these words on Christmas Day.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

May we not miss the sound of those bells this Christmas.

Grace and peace,

Jim