A Present for Jesus
The contrast between the images struck me hard. Like many people, when I get up I do a quick check of the news on my computer. That morning my screen filled with images and stories of the tornado hitting the Philippines. Later the same day, I sat down to relax by watching a program. The ads came first. This one, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, was my first Christmas ad of the season. I won’t mention the company but like most holiday advertisements it consisted of encouragement to buy, buy, buy because the more we spent on gifts the more our relatives and friends would appreciate us. The contrast between the aching need and the extravaganza of gift giving bothered me. I was troubled when I read an article stating the average American plans to spend over $800 on gifts this year (down from over $850 last year). Self-gifting, the practice of buying a gift for oneself has increased. Is this really how Jesus wants us to celebrate his birth? What can we do different?
How about we buy a present for Jesus? It Is his birthday we are celebrating.
I am not so naive that I believe people will stop buying or exchanging gifts nor do I think we should. Many of us enjoy it. Watching children’s faces light up on Christmas Day is something parents celebrate. I do think we can remember Jesus in our gift giving.
But what would happen if each of us also bought a present for Jesus? By that, I mean what if we gave one gift designed to help at least one of the many aching needs we can find in our world? It should not be a left over gift, but a gift as big and significant as all the other gifts we give. If we spend $20 on the average gift, our Jesus gift should be at least $20. If we spend $100, our Jesus gift should be at least $100. It is, of course, always OK to give more. I know folk who have decided they do not need more stuff and ask their families to give them alternative gifts by giving where the need is greatest.
What kinds of gifts could we give? Here at the church, we regularly support Homework House http://www.homeworkhouse.com/locations.htm (free tutoring for children), Bridge of Faith http://www.bridgeoffaith.org/ (supporting women who have aged out of the foster care system without really having the skills to support themselves), and First Day http://www.whittierfirstday.org/ (working to help people overcome homelessness). Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has opened a special account for the Philippines. You can donate to that or one of the other places they are helping at http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/pda/who-we-are/. Looking to help in another way? Try http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/pda/who-we-are/ for gifts ranging from wells to chickens to school packs. Not comfortable donating online? Send a check directly.
I have been asked why I came to Whittier Presbyterian, a once large congregation that has now shrunk in size. The honesty of the people who interviewed me is what convinced me. This is a congregation that had gone through the New Beginnings process and made some intentional choices about their future. Now, they asked for someone who could help them implement those difficult decisions.
We live in a time that is challenging for the Church. The percentage of the population that considers themselves Christians has declined while the percentage listing themselves as having no religious preference grows. Many people have a view of Christians shaped by the hate-filled groups that fill the media. The number and average size of congregations is shrinking. This is one of those periods, they have happened before in history and will probably happen again, when God is pruning the Church. When comfort comes before discipleship, when belief becomes easier than transforming lives, God does something to shake up the Church.
But this kind of challenging time is difficult for those who face the changes. It is hard on clergy, it is hard on members, and it is hard on everyone. I have watched congregations whither because they would not or could not accept that the context the Church lives in is changing. I consider it a gift to be asked to work with a group that is trying to face the change (which is not the same as liking it). How could I say no to this adventure?
Pray for the Church and each other as we follow God into this new future.
God continues to bless our church family. We have a wonderful new pastor, Pastor Elizabeth Steele. She is a wonderful addition to our worship family. Pastor Elizabeth has invited us to dream about new possibilities for our worship space, the community around us, and deepening our own relationships with God. Please join us in this endeavor. We are a welcoming congregation!
This is my last “Greetings from Whittier Presbyterian Church” email. Many of you will have signed up for Greetings from Geoff Nelson, so you will continue to hear from me. But today, I take a moment of personal privilege to reflect upon these emails.
It has been a wonderful journey which began in Feb. 2000, nearly 13 years ago. These emails were part of a new chapter in ministry for Whittier Presbyterian Church. The audience grew slowly and these emails became one of the first signs that I had gifts that could not only benefit our parish, but extend beyond into the larger faith community.
Thank you to the members of Whittier Presbyterian Church, for their partnership in ministry for nearly 28 years, for their encouragement to try new things over the years, and for the love that has grown between us.
Thank you to others of you on this list, wherever you came from, be it conferences, Companions retreats, DASD, all my dreaming friends, my clergy colleagues. All of you in various ways, have contributed not only to the ‘success’ of these emails, but in the personal growth that has been a great, profound and career-changing experience for me over these past twelve years. I thank God that many of you have testified that these emails have been helpful to you in your faith journeys.
Farewell, and I pray we will meet at various times & places as we continue our journeys of faith together.
Well, we’ve made it so far through the day and the world hasn’t ended yet.. So much for another end-of-the-world prediction.
My favorite astronomy site has this today. Following some of the links in this site will take you here: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html and you can follow more links at this site and get the astronomical perspective on such end of the world predictions. Here is a link I posted on Feb. 10 of this year, on the Mayan Calendar. Some more rational explorations of the Mayan Calendar have to do with shifts in human consciousness. Here’s Google’s list of such.
One of the themes of Advent is the second coming of Christ so Christians are familiar with prophecies of the end of the world. But some of us have come to see the deeper spiritual meaning of such prophecies, that Christ may come into our hearts in a dramatic fashion that can be spoken of as his second coming. Many of us have been praying for a shift in the culture of America, particularly since the shootings one week ago in Newtown, CT. There seems to be a sense in the press that we have had enough of unrestricted gun access, and perhaps enough graphic violence in movies and video games. I plan on talking with my grandchildren this holiday season about the Newtown shootings and about graphic video game violence. I’ll be interested in what the older kids have to say. We might even have the conversation while the young are blasting away on their new Christmas games!
Well, forgive my meandering thoughts and links. I doubt the world will end today, but I pray that there are some sifts taking place in our culture. I’d like to hear what you have found helpful about any of the topics covered here.
Blessings of Advent and Christmas to you all.
When do we tell the truth about Santa Claus? At what age can children ‘get it’ without being hurt and/or disappointed? Many a parent asks such questions. Here is something that I read the other day that relates to those questions and expands upon them. It’s from the great psychologist C. G. Jung, from Vol. 9, II of his Collected Works.
“… it is so extremely important to tell children fairy-tales and legends, and to inculcate religious ideas (dogmas) into grown-ups, because these things are instrumental symbols with whose help unconscious contents can be canalized into consciousness, interpreted, and integrated. Failing this, their energy flows off into conscious contents which, normally, are not much emphasized, and intensifies them to pathological proportions. We then get apparently groundless phobias and obsessions—crazes, idiosyncrasies, hypochondriac ideas, and intellectual perversions suitable camouflaged in social, religious, or political garb.”
I adapt Jung here to say, tell children about Santa as long as you can, then give them something else to believe in as they continue to grow and learn about themselves and the world. A mature Christian faith has little to do with Santa Claus, but it has everything to do with helping us deal with our unconscious contents and with the world around us. Apologies for this deeper psychological quote today, but the value of symbols and images in our lives of faith is very important. Helping children (and adults!) move from a literal understanding of symbols and legends to a deeper understanding as they are able is one of the great gifts we can give.
May your Advent/Christmas be full of symbols, legends, and all the stories you can find about this season.
Here is a Presbyterian response to the tragedy in Newtown, CT.
I ran across something I want to share in a commentary on Luke 3:7-18, the text I’m preaching on this coming Sunday. The commentator is the Rev. Wesley D. Avram, pastor of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. His commentary is in the “Feasting on the Word” Commentary series, year C vol. 1. I’m editing the quote with the words in parentheses.
“The classic question of character comes to mind, for each preacher (Christian) must determine with others what are the particular habits of pastoral (daily) and personal life that accomplish her (or his) credibility to name sin with compassion, to proclaim God’s forgiving Spirit, and to invite others to respond to that Spirit.”
I liked Avram’s implication that we are better & wiser if we name sins with compassion, not judgment. We are living in a time when judgment has a bad reputation and many are leaving Christianity because they perceive it to be so judgmental. Yet judgment and judgmental-ism are two different things. Judgmental-ism is characterized by a critical and condemning attitude. Yet judgment is important in living right, in discerning the difference between right and wrong, between something that will harm ourselves or harm others, and something that will be good for us or others. So I guess the key is using compassion in our judgments, not judgmental-ism. Perhaps if we used the word discernment instead of judgment, we would be safer.
Here are some quotes on judgmentalism:
What have you found that helps you understand the difference between compassion and judgmentalism?
May your Advent/Christmas time be a time of deepening holiness & respect.
This is dedicated to my step father-in-law, Richard Nuffer, who passed away Dec. 5, 2012.
A couple of years ago I titled one of these emails “Christmas In Your Face!” Here is what I said then:
“I don’t know about you but I get tired of the way some people make a big deal out of saying “Merry Christmas” and then go on to point out that it is “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Holidays” or any other kind of greeting. I understand the frustration that Christians can feel when confronted with the pressure of a secular or non-religious co-option of this Christian holiday. But I’m not convinced that being in someone’s face with “Merry Christmas” is what Jesus would do.
My personal preference is still to say “Happy Holidays” to others because the end of December is not only the Christmas Holiday, but it leads to New Years Day as well. That is an official holiday too, just like Christmas. So when I see someone during December who I will not see until January, I include my wishes for the New Year as well as Christmas by saying “Happy Holidays.” And that is not even thinking about those who celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa at the same time of year.”
Though so far this year I’ve not heard the kind of whining comments that prompted that email two years ago, I did run across a great link given me by my friend Deborah Arca at Patheos. Watch that site, it’s big and can be very addicting! Here’s the link from Ms Arca:
Broadening our understanding of Advent/Christmas, and the measure of respect for each other that might be part of Advent/Christmas can make the holiday time a more blessed and profound time.
May your Advent/Christmas time be a time of deepening holiness & respect.
One of my favorite events of Advent/Christmas is the broadcasting of the service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, England. It is a mix of modern and ancient music and there is usually at least one piece commissioned annually for that event. I have the equipment at home to record the broadcast and have done so for several years. Last year the lyrics of a Medieval carol caught my attention, particularly the one verse that went like this:
As sunnë shineth through the glass,
So Jesu in his mother was;
Thee to serve now grant us grace,
O lux beata Trinitas.
The modern version would look something like this:
As sun shines through the glass,
So Jesus in his mother was;
Thee to serve now give us grace
O Trinity of blessed light.
What a great image, “sun shining through glass,” to image Jesus in Mary’s womb. I’m reminded of how stained or colored glass can give such beauteous decoration to a room. The metaphor of Jesus beautifully decorating life, and therefore deserving our praise and service inspires me. You can see the lyrics for the whole carol here:
http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/files/services/festival-nine-lessons-2011.pdf, then go to p. 21. King’s College Choir has a variety of resources here.
What is your favorite metaphor at Advent/Christmas?
May the blessings of Advent be yours today
Here is a reflection on the Incarnation, the theological focus of Advent & Christmas. It comes from the Right Reverend Larry Maze, the retired Bishop of Arkansas. I found it in “The Rose,” a journal publication of Emmanuel Church in Athens, Georgia, vol. 20.
“I’ve long held the hope that the whole world’s love of Christmas has to do with a longing for a God who participates in the flesh and blood realities of where and how we live. So many Christians seem to believe that God lives somewhere else and looks on us from afar. It is a good thing that at least once a year we entertain the expectation that God and flesh and blood might be connected, if even for a holiday.”
I find these words to be a nice articulation of the deeper elements of the Advent & Christmas season. Here are some words about Bishop Maze from this edition of “The Rose.” “He continues to be fascinated by the clear connection between Jungian thought and Christian spirituality… (and) …he tries to instill the message that inner work is not an interesting hobby, but likely the most important work we have to do.” I’ve long used Advent at our church as an opportunity to engage folks in an opportunity, at least for the four weeks of Advent, for some of that important inner work. There is plenty of outer work to do during Advent, but some inner work provides a good balance.
May your 2012 Advent bring about deeper inner work in your soul.