Gabriel turns Two: Happy Birthday Sweet Boy

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Body and The Nativity

Two nights ago my husband and I bundled up our kids and pilgrimaged as a family to a large scale live nativity put on by a large, vital, conservative church in our area. The sets were unbelievable; the costumes amazing, the actors pretty good and the live animals totally topped off the experience, especially Donkey whose soulful eyes looked like they really could've seen the birth of Jesus.

Scenes were depicted from the prophecies of Isaiah, through selected snapshots from the gospels, like when Jesus calms the storm and invites the little children, all the way to the crucifixion, the empty tomb and the women running off to tell the clueless men, and finally the ascension, replete with functional elevator lifting the white-robed Jesus to heaven. A true living story, portrayed visibly, tangible for children and adults alike to witness; A true story living, ripe with an invitation to enter in.

Of course I could have done without the cheesy "creation story" video about "the fall" and "man's condition" at the beginning of the show, just as I let a slightly audible sigh of frustration escape when they corralled everyone in front of another TV for an evangelistic, "if you want to know how to have have a personal relationship with Jesus, call the pastor or join our discovery class" shpeal before letting people into the cafeteria for free refreshments.

I am a believer and I wonder every day how to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Acknowledging that Jesus gave his life for me does not teach me all that much about having a personal relationship with Jesus, just as saying "I do" to my husband doesn't really equip me to know how to have an intimate marriage. For example, imagine I said "I do" to my husband via a telegraph while my husband was verbally unreachable in a foreign country, with no promise of becoming reachable by telephone, much less in person in the immediate near future?" What if the telegraph I got from my lover simply said, "I will be with you in spirit, and someday I'll come back for you but even I don't know the day or the hour?" How then do we create an intimate marriage? Simply by believing we are married? Perhaps a start, but not a catchall.

So I wonder how the language of "check box A to receive Christ as your personal savior and have a personal relationship with God" comes across to non-believers who come to hear the story of Christmas, and find themselves engaging with the story of Christians.

The story of Christians is might and full of grace: God came into the world and offered a free gift -- the gift of life, given at the cost of God's own self in Jesus, and God's promise of freeing redemption, the Spirit to help us transform this world and bring us to God for eternal life, demonstrated as trustworthy by the resurrection -- is mighty and full of truth and grace. The live nativity scenes conveyed so powerfully many aspects of that story, bringing to light God's entry-point into the world for the people gathered under Creation's stars this Christmas season. Yet the witness was cheapened for me that night by the strings attached to the live nativity experience. Yes, free entrance. Yes, free parking. Yes free sugar cookies and chocolate chip cookies, water and hot chocolate. Oh, but it turns out there are strings, and the sense that rather than a story born witness to, there is an agenda for sale. You have to watch the videos with all the prepackaged Christianity-in-a-formula stuff. And hear about the churche's great programs. This is not a free gift. It is an "outreach event" of magnificent proportions.

And yet, would a more liberal, or even Emerging church have created such a magnificent live nativity as a home for the story of God's coming into the world? Would we have been organized enough or committed enough to telling the story as we find it in scripture? Would we have invested the time, money, energy and talent to bring the most important story in the world to light this Christmas? Perhaps because conservative churches take a "face value" approach to scripture, theirs is a gift of commitment and actions, whereas in recognizing the ambiguities of faith, it is so easy for us liberals to let our faith become diffuse; easy for us become more socially concsious, (a good thing) and more accepting others different from ourselves (also a good thing) while losing our first passion for the story in which we find our Life.

So I am grateful that God has ordained the more conservative parts of God's body to proclaim simply and boldly the Story in which we find ourselves -- our better, where God finds us.

And yet I am hopeful that one day, conservative churches will trust God enough to tell story on its own terms. I am hopeful that when the Story is told, truly free of strings, that the message will shine through in a compelling way, and people will be drawn to the story and its reality without clever ploys or switch and bait evangelism. I know for me, I would be much more likely to openly read about the offerings of a church if I attended a live nativity that told the Christmas story -- or even the Christian story -- without agenda, simply as an offering freely given as as service to God and the community. I celebrate that hope this Christmas.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Advent for Real

It's advent and I'm expecting. Pregnant. Busy; the mother of two energetic, fairly high maintenance, wonderful, exhausing born children, and mother of the being-under-creation within my womb, who goes with me shopping and sleeping and stressing and learning to fine small moments of peace and joy.

I hate suburbia these days; burdensom to me are the expectations of the culture shaping my kids and pressing in on me, though I try to resist to the best of my ability. The professional birthday parties, the pressure to start your child's resume' of extracurriculars at age 18 months, with a reasonable curriculum vitae by age 6. The feeling that you should be keeping up with the Joneses -- that if you are not, you will be guilty, either in eyes of your culture and peers, or in the eyes of your child, who cannot help but covet the neighbor's cool stuff and hyped-up activity roster. Yes, I hate suburbia, and yet it's where I live, and I'm as much a product of it as a critic.

I wonder how much I can opt out of -- how to find that balance of being the the world, but not of it. Each year I try to convert my major Christmas shopping list into Heifer donations, and every year I guilt trip myself into thinking that for this or that reason so and so will be hurt if I don't at least get them a little something tangible. My reasons are always good (I think.) Aunt Jessi will feel hurt because she is going through a divorce and lives very close to Aunt Pat, who just had a baby and received a generous Baby box, with a little something for the whole family. So I am trying to wean those within my circle gradually, to bring some semblance of balance and sane enjoyment of advent back into focus.

I wonder how holy Mary felt during the grueling donkey ride on her way to submit to the census. Who wants to travel pregnant during the holidays because of a government mandate? And then there were surely issues with Joseph. Was he pressuring her to make love before Jesus' birth? Did she feel guilty when he went around the corner to "take care of himself?" Did they blame each other for not getting there in time to find a room at the Inn? The mother mild probably did not wander in gentle bliss during her days of Great Advent Expectation. And yet she was not disqualified from bringing God's incarnate love into the world!

Maybe there's a message here for us -- the journey of advent doesn't have to be bump-free in order to be a journey toward the birth of God's love in our hearts, our families, our communities and the world.