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.


Uncomfortably Numb said...

This is exactly how I feel about Anne Lamott. In seminary four years ago, I was charged with presenting a short sermon for a class opener. I chose to read and discuss Anne's conversion experience from Traveling Mercies. I love her reply to Jesus: "Fuck it. You can come in."

No excuses need be made. Grace is either free and blindfolded, or it isn't. The school I attended is borderline fundamentalist, and some of my fellow seminarians squirmed during the reading. It's hard for them to embrace a sister so free with the so-called f-word in her description of coming to Christ. Well, I just love it. It reeks of sinners and tax collectors, Jesus' favorite compadres. I wish I could say I got no pleasure in the squirming...

I enjoy how your mind works. Thanks for sharing.

Jemila Monroe said...

Yes, I love Anne Lamott's frank, crass, beautiful humor, and that quote in particular. I must admit, my writing has been influenced by her. Especially my controversial post on EW titled, "Butt Sex" ;)