Rewriting Christmas

I’ve often said that I loathe Christmas, but that’s not exactly true. I adore the religious holiday of Christmas. Some of my fondest memories in my spiritual life involve staying up most of the night of Christmas Eve into Christmas morning, contemplating the Incarnation. Unfortunately the secular celebration that uses the same name is my least favorite time of year. While I find the “war on Christmas” crowd to be ridiculous, I do feel that Christ has been divorced from his own mass, even in most purported religious celebrations.

In my own family “the meaning of Christmas” was giving to others in love. While a beautiful sentiment, it’s so far removed from my most profound experiences of Christmas that I can’t even see how it applies. Giving to others in love is a foundation of Christianity, but the way it is practiced at Christmas feels, to me, to be counter to a feast celebrating the incarnation of the Divine in the person of Jesus.

Perhaps that’s because Advent has been overshadowed by the Christmas season. There is no room for waiting, for contemplation, for quiet anticipation. There is only “30 shopping days left until Christmas.” Our system of maintaining the wealth of the ruling class is, in many ways, dependent upon the consumer glut of the Christmas shopping season. The first day of the season is “Black Friday,” a day when retail establishments profits move upward. Yet, Mary’s song of praise in anticipation of the birth of Jesus celebrates a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) Is this God honored by making the rich richer in the mad dash to get the best deals, even if the drive behind it is to give to loved ones?

In this state, even the symbols with which we surround ourselves lose their meaning. Christmas lights, on a house or a tree, have such potential to be a reminder of what is coming. The small, dim lights in the darkness can keep us focused on the hope of greater light coming. The evergreens can speak of life continuing despite the cold and darkness. But they don’t. We’re too frenzied to notice. The songs of secular Christmas don’t speak to my life, my culture or my place. This is southern Louisiana. We don’t have white Christmases, sleigh bells ringing nor winter wonderlands. No one I know has ever seen a partridge in a pear tree. And even if some deck their halls with holly, do they do so with an awareness of holly’s symbolism? The trappings of Christmas are so divorced from the cultures in which they arose that they lack meaning.

But I’m trying this year to find Christmas celebrations that nourish me. Part of that is in response to my loves, both of whom have many good associations with Christmas. So instead of simply decrying all that is wrong with Christmas, I am trying to imagine a Christmas celebration that speaks to me, feeds me and reflects my experience of the divine incarnation. Here are some scattered ideas.

I think the first part of that is reclaiming Advent. I’ve not done this well this year, but I am trying. Prayer, contemplation, quiet. These things can help me prepare for what is to come.

Music like “O Come O Come Emmanuel” or Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” is wonderful.

Imagining the topsy turvy world to which the coming incarnation speaks is a wonderful use of time. If we know that God is coming in the form of a child born to poor parents in an occupied country, then where in our own worlds can we anticipate God?

Creating! If gifts are to be given in the coming feast, time spent crafting them is a wonderful way to participate in God’s creation. If we are made in the image of God, and the first image of God our scriptures bring us is that of Creator, then by creating we realize a part of our own divine natures.

If Advent is to be reclaimed, then Christmas is to actually start on Christmas. The Christmas season doesn’t start on the day after Thanksgiving. It starts on December 25, and continues through January 6 (or perhaps, from sunset Christmas eve though sunset January 6). Christmas day is but the start, and those 12 days are the time to begin celebrating the entrance of the divine into the world in the flesh of Jesus. So then what would work for me? Filling those days with meals with loved ones. Drinking and dancing, sharing. From Christmas until 12th night we revel in the beauty and truth that the greatest has become the least and the entire world has been changed.

And of course from 12th night until Ash Wednesday, the celebration continues as Carnival, in which the turning upside down of the world is focused on more and more.

And shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but in this configuration I can even see myself wanting to give gifts (in the form of small, hand-made tokens), whereas as I’ve seen it as a stress filled obligation before now.

It’s not much, and it’s all going to be hard to practice in the face of a consumerist, culturally irrelevant secular Christmas onslaught, but it’s a start. Maybe by writing this out and by rewriting the holiday itself I’m one step closer to finding a Christmas I love instead of being saddled with one I loathe.

So Anne Rice isn’t a Christian anymore?

I admit I’ve never been a fan of Anne Rice. I enjoyed Belinda but every other of book of hers I’ve tried to read hasn’t done anything for me. When I’d heard that she had embraced Christianity and was going to write novels about Jesus, I cringed. At least it’s not Stephenie Meyer, right? (At least not yet.)

But I just read on Huffington Post that Anne Rice has “quit being a Christian.”

What she actually said was this:

Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

And then

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

So Anne has just defined Christian as quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat, anti-secular humanism, anti-science and anti-life.

Ignoring two-thousand years of often contentious and contradictory struggle with understanding and experiencing the divine in the context of a particular Palestinian Jew’s life and teachings, she’s decided that Christianity is the domain of the loudest, most bigoted, least Christlike group of people using the name. In her view Metropolitan Community Churches, Sojourners, Jesus Radicals, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Jay Bakker, Phyllis Tickle, and likely St. Francis himself aren’t Christian. That’d be a pretty big surprise to some of those people.

Anne says elsewhere on her Facebook page, “My faith in Christ is central to my life… Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

And that’s great, Anne. Valuing Christ over any particular cultural expression of valuing Christ is a long running part of following Christ. But that puts you right at the center, at the very core of Christianity. That makes you like countless other devotees of Christ. That puts you in the company of George Fox and Martin Luther. It makes you a compatriot of house churches across the world and a cohort of the Emerging Church conversation. These things don’t make you not a Christian. They make you a quintessential Christian.

The Police

The other day I said on Twitter, “I really do think cops are bad people.”

I need to go ahead and rescind that statement. I don’t actually believe there is a category such as “bad people.”

Let me back up and explain what led to this, and tell you a little bit about what I think of the police.

Sunday night my partner and I had left Bonnaroo and geared up for a 10 hour drive home overnight. About 40 miles away from the site we passed a car that was pulled over and being searched by the police. It was pretty obvious that they were also coming from Bonnaroo, and I wasn’t surprised that small town cops were targeting traffic leaving the festival. After all, it’s their big chance to get some drug busts in and feel special. Not a minute later blue lights start flashing behind us as well. The guy who pulled us over said we hadn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign. He went to write a warning and another cop walked up with a dog and said he was going to walk the dog around the car, and if the dog signaled, they had probable cause to search the vehicle. The dog signaled, and we were told to step out of the car. As seems to be standard, we were told that they could help us if we just told them where we had hidden our stash.

The cops (over the course of the stop there were a total of 5 of them) then proceeded to go through everything in our car. They didn’t find anything because we didn’t have anything. The cop who had brought the dog then said that he could smell marijuana in the car, and said that if we didn’t tell him where it was, that he was going to have to start taking panels off the car. “You don’t want your friend’s car to get messed up, do you?” We again told him we didn’t know of anything in the car. Finally they let us go.

Our things were a mess. Every bag had been opened and rifled through, and nothing had been put back. Backpacks and purses were tossed back into the backseat without even closing them back first. Through the entire time we were detained we were lied to and manipulated by the police. We were threatened with damage to the car. We were told that if we just confessed they could make it easier on us. We were asked questions designed to get us to implicate ourselves in a crime we didn’t commit. Our belongings were treated with complete disregard. And this is not an instance of bad cops. This is standard procedure for those thought to have committed a crime.

It was shortly thereafter that I relayed the experience on Twitter and said “I really do think cops are bad people.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t become pro-cop in the time it’s taken me to calm my nerves. I just realized that in a moment of fear and anger I misspoke. I do think the police, individually and systematically, make the world a worse place. I do not, however, think that they are bad people. As I said above, I don’t believe that there is such a category.

I understand that many people join police and military forces because they have a drive to protect the people, things and a way of life that they love. I can see a nobility in that drive. I do not believe, however, that working as a cop (nor as a soldier) actually protects anyone. It only punishes people. To join a police force is not to dedicate oneself to protecting others. It is to dedicate oneself to upholding the law. Those are two very different things.

In the US, more people are imprisoned per capita than in any other country. More than in North Korea. More than in China. More than in Iran.

The goal of a police officer is not to make sure people don’t get hurt. The goal is to punish people for violating the law. The law doesn’t need to be just. It doesn’t need to be reasonable. It doesn’t even have to have anything to do with people getting hurt. The law simply states that the behavior outlined in its words is grounds for punishment. The job of a cop is to find people who cross the boundaries of a law.

This includes activities where no one is harmed, such as consensual prostitution, stripping in outfits that don’t cover enough of a body, and yes, possession of a controlled substance. The police find justification in the law for using violence against people who are hurting no one. They can use intimidation, lies and force and are considered to be on the right side of the law and of society, when others who are causing no harm to anyone are on the wrong side.

And it is that dedication to the law and upholding it with violence that I see as an unequivocal wrong.

My dad trains dogs to do police work. Or at least he used to. He’s been too busy with his full time job the last few years to really be able to do that. He trains them to search for drugs, explosives, firearms and people. He started doing it for two reasons. He likes dogs, and he wanted to help make the world a better place. I love my dad, and I respect his desire to help. I also think he participated in evil acts and helped perpetuate violence. His drive may be noble, but the way he followed that drive led him to engage in evil. And I believe that is true of every cop, every soldier, every judge and every politician.

Cops can be people’s friends. They can do nice things. They can be good company. And they make a deliberate, daily choice to make their priority violently punishing people for violating law. They are no different from gang members and mafia thugs, folks who also have reasons, even noble reasons, for the things they do as well. They can be your friend. They can help people. And they choose violence, death and destruction over and over again. The ONLY difference is that they don’t have the majority of society approving of their violence and their reasons for exercising violence. Neither police nor mafia thugs are bad people, but they are people who do equally bad things. They dedicate themselves to a system built on violence, then act violently within that system.

The police are my enemies. Each one of them. When my own father works with them, he is my enemy. I love him and I respect him, and I’m disappointed and saddened by the choices he’s made. Jesus said “Love your enemies,” and I try to do so. I fail often, and I admit that. But he never said they wouldn’t be our enemies. And the police are my enemy, individually and as an institution, regardless of the love I, or others, have for them. For that, and for my own anger at and mistrust of the police, I will not apologize.

A new creaton story

Lord we need a new redemption song
Lord we’ve tried
It just seems to come out wrong
Won’t you help us please
Help us just to sing along
A new redemption song

~ “New Redemption Song” by Over the Rhine

I was thinking of those words when I read Lisa Nichols Hickman’s writing on why we need a new creation story for today.

The Gulf South needs a new creation story because our Biblical stories have been corrupted. This is a year where the Supreme Court gave corporations the right to have “freedom of speech.” Businesses whose very business it is to generate profits are entitled to voice and action in political campaigns. This corrupts the concept God had in mind when he bent in the mud to shape life, breathing vitality into a human being whose lips give voice to praise and prayer, questions and lament, confession and calling. God created a human, not a corporation, to have the gift of speech.

And now, our corporations running amok in the muck and mud of the world are scarring the face of the earth. Creatures are now drenched in oil and dying a slow and painful death. The teeming elements of the earth — pelicans, turtles, alligators, dolphins, shrimp and crawfish — are no longer able to give praise.

The Gulf Coast needs a new creation story. The inspired word our world needs will come from the voices of those created and called to praise, to lament, to ask and to seek. This community of those longing for a new creation will need to stamp their muddy feet, raise their dusty palms and from their breathy voices cry out in anger.

Genesis 1 describes a powerful God who is above creation and whose voice booms creation into being. Genesis 2 paints a picture of a God at play in the world, personally present to us. If Genesis 1 says God is above, and Genesis 2 says God is beside, then perhaps this new creation story will proclaim God can be at work within this very mess.

I nearly wept at her words. Lord we need a new creation story.

Finding God

“The reason we can hope to find God is that He is here, engaged all the time in finding us. Every gleam of beauty is a pull toward Him. Every pulse of love is a tendril that draws us in His direction. Every verification of truth links the finite mind up into a Foundational Mind that undergirds us. Every deed of good will points toward a consummate Goodness which fulfills all our tiny adventures in faith. We can find Him because in Him we live and move and have our being.”

~ Rufus M. Jones, “Pathways to the Reality of God”