Sadness and hope on Boxing Day

IMG_6554As a child, the day after Christmas was genuinely depressing. All the joys of getting and giving were gone for another year. Most light displays remain dark yet still arrayed. Growing up in the Deep South, we lacked even the slightest chance for the magic of snow to lift our moods; instead the outdoors tended to be wet and brown, with a few stubborn greens intermingled. The distracting yet oddly exhilarating rush in the final days before Christmas is replaced with the stifling stillness of a holiday hangover. The hymns and joy have evaporated into the memories from whence they came, replaced by a melancholy silence, engulfing the discarded wrapping paper, abandoned decorations, and now stale cookie trays to tell us to go about our lives, for Christmas is gone.

I can’t help but wonder if the very first Christmas felt a lot like that. The rush of getting a very pregnant Mary inside was over. The angels had retreated, their song ended. All the cute barn animals we like to include in our felt nativity scenes needed to be fed. The shepherds inevitably returned to their flocks, sitting out on the hills for another night. Distanced from clean, polite society, they likely watched the sky grow dark the next night, wondering in vain if the night would explode again in glory. The new parents, Mary and Joseph, were left to clean baby poop.

The ancient world went about its business, blissfully unaware of the joy and pain the little baby in their midst would soon bring them. Buying, selling, living, dying, toiling on as it had always been. Pain, slavery, misogyny, abuse, and war continued to stake their claim to humanity and the earth. All the while, though they didn’t yet understand, a few knew the truth: God was telling another story, a story of redemption and reconciliation. As the drum of death beat on, a Jewish boy was born to look it in the face and humbly yet strongly proclaim, “No.”

And maybe that’s still how Christmas is. Once the day is over, the world tells us to keep moving, to get on with “just how things are.” Ebola in West Africa, the violence of ISIS, growing animosity between police and the people they are charged to protect, continuing racial strife and oppression, society-destroying greed disguised as ambition and business, slavery, misogyny, war and rumor of war beat on. The world doesn’t have a problem with taking a break to sing and wrap some presents, but our ideals better not get in the way of business as usual, whether we’re objecting to a business decision or protesting death on a busy Christmas shopping day. We, however, have been called to something else. As the world tells us to accept a narrative of destruction needed to keep the world going, God is still telling a different story. A story of redemption and reconciliation, of giving to people who the world says don’t deserve it, of loving enemies, of ending violence and oppression even when the system is convenient. And we’re invited to join.

I’m not worried about non-Christians who don’t “keep Christ in Christmas.” There’s nothing offensive or shocking about someone not celebrating a holiday and story in which they don’t believe. I’m worried about Christians who don’t keep Him in the other 364 days of the year. We celebrate Christmas like saints, but toss aside the Christmas spirit on midnight with everyone else. We fail to remember the hope, joy, peace, and love, the Christmas spirit, is the Holy Spirit. I know it’s easy to fall back into our lives. The rush of life keeps us from noticing the fallen around us. Anxiety feeds on our joy (even today I’ve caught myself thinking about things I need to do back in Waco). The advent of the humble King of all Kings, quiet and calm, seems to do little to stem the flood of bad news, then or now. But more people keep remembering to tell the story with their own lives. If you’re struggling with fear or anxiety, overwhelmed by the world’s violence, or just simply don’t know what to do with it all, I hope you’ll take the time in the coming days to think about God’s own Son born away from splendor and attended by lowly shepherds. Remember that He came for you and all of us, and our world changed forever with His birth. And even after the last Christmas lights go out, I hope you’ll join Jesus as he looks at the darkness all around us and humbly yet strongly proclaim, “No.”

Sadness and hope on Boxing Day

Peace among grand juries, waterboards, and Christmas trees

peace candleMuch has been said, and much more will be said, and much more should be said of the staggering inequalities that still face our fellow humans residing in the self-proclaimed land of the free. Of the violence perpetrated against Muslims in our name, and the sickeningly racist and vengeful responses by those who swear loyalty a tortured man condemned on a cross. These wounds feel fresh and new, but it is only because we have ignored them while they festered, along with all of our other violences, which are legion.

Make no mistake,
racism is anti-Christ,
torture is anti-Christ,
hating those made in God’s image, even those of other races, faiths, or lifestyles, is anti-Christ

and the world feels it, whether they know Christ or not. Protest after protest, speech after speech, violent retribution after violent retribution, all proclaim that there is no justice, and there is no peace.

All the while a voice crying in the wilderness of American news entertainment hopes the anger and pain won’t interrupt the lighting of a Christmas tree. We live in a land and a world beset by violence, physical and otherwise, and our leaders cry out, “Peace, peace!” We can ignore it for a time, because it might not affect us. It’s those other people and other places, and they probably deserve it. Or we feel violence has already been healed. We went to the seminar, we had a committee at our church, we elected the guy who railed against it. We didn’t commit violence, not us. “Peace, peace,” the land is healed, let us have our Christmas tree in peace. But if God hates our festivals when there is no justice, I’m sure He hates the trees we chop down as if they were our fellow humans, soon to wither in the heat of our violent world.

Much has been said of our current violence, so let us say something of peace. The peace of Christ is not the peace of this world, the Pax Romanas and Pax Americanas built upon the bodies of their enemies and protected by the same violence we flee. The peace of Christ is not simply the absence of conflict, it is complete reconciliation. All races and nations, annoying neighbors, and evil bosses playing with the wolf and the lamb. Every last one of us who swears loyalty to the tortured man who died on the cross are commanded to commit ourselves to achieving this peace. Blessed are the peacemakers, not those waiting in peace, not those waiting on peace, not those unaffected by violence, not those who think they are innocent because they don’t see the corpses under their feet, not those who think peace is impractical, not those who accept things the way they are. Blessed are the peacemakers.

To achieve this peace, Jesus taught us that though we’ve been told to love our friends, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. When we do, it is harder to strike against them in our world’s endless cycles of violence. As former war correspondent Chris Hedges puts it so well in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: “Many of those who defy the collective psychosis of the nation are solitary figures once the war ends. Yet these acts of compassion are usually the best antidotes to the myths peddles by the nationalists.  Those who reached across lines to assist the “enemy” freed themselves from nationalist abstractions that dehumanized others. They were vaccinated against the cult of death that dominates societies in wartime.” (Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York: Anchor Books 2002, 49)

Peacemaking really is like a vaccine. It is disruptive, and there will be side effects. Our world is broken, fallen, and feeds on violence. The system is not broken; it is functioning as darkly as the world who birthed it. In a world that relies on violence, a lot of people stand to lose much when (not if) Jesus’ peace comes. Peacemaking can and will run against the death machine. So if peacemaking means we disrupt our lives or the lives of the violent, fear not. The vaccine is acting as it should. And if there are side effects, we should not be surprised the virus is fighting for its life.

We will also hear the voice of vaccine truthers whose objections mirror those who doubt medical vaccines. The risk of complications is too high. What if our enemies strike back stronger? What if we sacrifice too much and undo our world? We don’t know if it will work; has it been tested properly? The disease isn’t that bad; it isn’t worth all this risk and trouble. As long as it doesn’t affect the heart (of our homeland), we’ll be fine. But violence runs to only one end: death. There is no living with the disease, it must be eradicated. We must be vaccinated.

This past Sunday, countless churches around the world lit the second candle of Advent, representing peace. Just days after the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Days before we learned the depth of depravity embodied by American torturers. The distress of the last month does nothing to disprove the vaccine; rather it demands it. May everyone who swears loyalty to the tortured man who overcame the cross be emboldened by the cure to reach out in love to those we are told to hate.

Peace among grand juries, waterboards, and Christmas trees