Saturday, December 14, 2013

Don't Let Them Steal Your Christmas

          So there I was eating lunch in front of the TV – a few days after Halloween – trying to come up with worship themes for Advent/Christmas – when what to my wondering ears should appear???  An expression – a campaign – a mindset – that raises my blood pressure to dangerous levels each year at this time.  The presentation of the thesis that nearly had me throw what was left of my Subway sandwich at the screen went like this:
“If you check out of a store and the clerk wishes you ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas,’ refuse to pay them until they say, ‘Merry Christmas!’  Don’t let them steal your Christmas!”
            Yikes.  Really???  Someone can ‘steal’ your Christmas by NOT saying “Merry Christmas” to you?  If so, that seems to say volumes more about your superficial understanding of the mystery of the divine incarnation in human history than it does that clerk’s personal piety or the impious state of society as a whole.
            The fact that the phrase “Merry Christmas” as a popular/appropriate greeting dates only back to the 1843 publication of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol notwithstanding, the phrase, in the minds of some, has become a litmus test for a genuinely meaningful Christmas.  Whether or not the greeting is made by a person who is a Christian seems irrelevant.  This campaign seems to operate on the a priori assumption that it is everyone else’s responsibility to greet me in a way that doesn’t either “steal” or somehow “declare war” on my understanding of Christmas.
            It’s not that I don’t care that Christians have lost control of their own story at Christmas by allowing it to be overtaken by crass commercialism and over-the-top gift-giving.  I do. But, When an economist explains that the size of the Christmas season shopping blitz directly determines the financial health of the retail industry, and, by extension, our whole economy, we Christians have willingly allowed the story to function as an economic insurance policy.
 As a follower of Jesus Christ myself, I am saddened that the Body of Christ in the U.S. has, by and large, stood by idly while this has happened.  This sadness moves to a combination of fear and anger when parts of the Body of Christ seem to imply that the real meaning of Christmas is whether the cashiers – employees on the lowest rung of the retail industrial ladder – can adequately verbalize the appropriate greeting while the same believer is worshiping at the altar of commercialism.
As one who has studied, taught and preached upon the Biblical Christmas narratives for three decades, I can state with no reservation that the phrase “Merry Christmas” cannot begin to carry the height and depth of that story. These two words cannot begin to carry the theological freight found in the Biblical narrative.  When you hear someone say, “Merry Christmas,” are you immediately calling to mind some of these radical elements of the Nativity?
·         the Incarnation – the Divine becoming human – was itself an expectation that exilic and post-exilic prophets foretold several centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth;
·         the call for a young woman to fully surrender her expectations of how her marriage and life would unfold; and her response of an unconditional YES;
·         the use of unlikely persons to whom the message of the Divine Incarnation are entrusted: shepherds are given the task of telling the world of the Nativity at a time/place in history when that entire profession was not allowed to testify in court because they were known to be such unrepentant liars; wise men/star gazers from Gentile lands bring gifts recognizing a kingship Jesus’ own people eventually rejected.

There are more, but I pray you get my point.  I further pray that no one “steals YOUR Christmas” or, worse, declares war on it.  If, however, you do feel your Christmas was stolen  by a misplaced, though well intentioned “Happy Holidays,” may I suggest you no longer carry your Christmas with such nonchalance that it may be picked from your pocket so easily.  If your Christmas is under a war-like attack, fear not, this story has survived much worse than this.

Please allow me one more suggestion to those whose Christmas is being victimized.  Try getting to a church on Christmas Eve.  Sing the old carols.  Gather around the table for Communion, if that be your tradition.  Watch the Light of the World spread through the darkened room with the candle lighting. See your neighbors faces lit by the Light of Christ. See the wonder in a child’s eyes.  Note the tear of a widow experiencing her first Christmas Eve without a spouse.  Greet the ill-dressed family that didn’t have the opportunity to be offended by a cashier this Christmas because there are no gifts – and little food – in their home.   Watch the young couple struggling to care for their first baby while attempting to be attentive and worshipful…maybe even offer to help.  And then, on Christmas Day, take an hour to wander the halls of a care facility, a dementia unit or a pediatric floor in a hospital and find someone who just wants to talk about Christmas.  I guarantee any feelings victimhood will evaporate.

May the One born in Bethlehem so long ago, be born again in you this Christmas.

Peace,  Jon

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A New Leaf

It was my day off and I was still in the process of moving into the parsonage in Ottumwa, Iowa.  My wife is still in Alaska, pastoring the two churches I left to come to Ottumwa First UMC.  The thought of spending more time unpacking and arranging things that will only be rearranged when my better half arrives in July was depressing; I’ve done nothing but that on my days off for a month now.  I needed a distraction.  I needed something totally different.  Nothing to do with church…nothing to do with unpacking…

Several months ago, I’d received one of those family tree programs as a gift.  For whatever reason, I hadn’t taken the time to start that process.  But, it did sound like the perfect distraction.  I thought I’d give it an hour…90 minutes tops…before my short attention span would draw me to another shiny object with which to amuse myself…

FIVE HOURS LATER…I’m looking at digital pictures of gravestones in Truro, England with my mother’s last name on them.  I’ve been captivated by digital photos of census records from 1830; bills of lading listing passengers from places like Belgium, Germany and England.  I’ve learned that one of my ancestors had a child whose place of death and burial is Boston Harbor.  Another ancestor died while guiding logs down a river (ala “Axmen”) in New Jersey.  My 9th Great-Grandfather, John Webster, was Governor of the Colony of Connecticut from 1657 to 1659.  I even traced the itineration of my Great-Grand-Uncle the Rev. Frank E. Brush who was pastor of First United Methodist Church, Ottumwa (the church I now pastor) from 1895-1900.  I’ve read census and burial records of distant relatives who’d had 8 or 9 children; only 4 of which lived to be adults. 

I know none of these experiences are unique to my family; nevertheless, it is humbling.  I expect to be a grandfather for the first time in the coming 7 to 10 days…a new leaf on the family tree…the first in a new generation.  I know I will look at that new life with wonder and hope.  I wonder about the world in which s/he will live as an adult…and I will do so with more than a little fear and, yet, a good measure of hope.  I pray on the eve of his/her first grandchild’s birth decades from now this new leaf will be able to wonder with hope as well.  As did my 9th Great-Grandfather Webster nearly 400 years ago.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Where Was I...?

I apologize for the unannounced hiatus since Advent.  So…where was I?

The question has a literal answer in my case.  I WAS in Alaska.  I am NOW in Ottumwa, Iowa.  The short version goes like this…
  1. We were planning on returning to Iowa in June, 2012 due to Leila’s position with the Alaska Conference being ended and a lack of appointments for a clergy couple.  We filed our papers with the Iowa Cabinet on November 14.  On November 16, I receive a call from a Superintendent in Iowa.
  2. First United Methodist Church in Ottumwa, Iowa was in immediate need for pastoral leadership due to their pastor returning to the Philippines for a family emergency.   The Bishop and Cabinet invited me to consider a mid-year appointment to Ottumwa First. 
  3. Within days, I flew to Iowa to meet with church members and was invited to consider beginning January 1, 2012.  I asked for February 1 so I wouldn’t spend Advent and Christmas packing (which I did anyway).
  4. My appointment to First UMC, Ottumwa is announced.  Filling my position will be my former co-pastor Leila (she’s also my wife…am I moving to fast for you here?).  She and our dog Scout will remain in Alaska until June.
  5. January 4, 2012 nearly all our stuff is packed and crated to travel from Anchorage to Ottumwa.  My clothing is limited to what I can pack into a suitcase.
  6. January 30, I board a plane for Des Moines, IA.
  7. January 31, I arrive in Ottumwa and begin my pastorate the next day.
  8. The other shoe drops on February 12 when it is announced in Ottumwa and Anchorage that the Rev. Leila Disburg will be appointed as pastor at the Willard Street United Methodist Church in Ottumwa beginning July 1, 2012.
  9. Last but not least….February 14, the crates containing our belongings arrive in Ottumwa.  And, yes, all guitars arrived in the same condition they were when I packed them!

It’s amazing what God, a Bishop and a Cabinet of Superintendents can accomplish in about 85 days. 

So…not much God-talk this week, but an update.  I know in coming weeks I’ll share reflections on my 4 ½ years in Alaska as well as thoughts about coming back home to Iowa.  Perhaps, even a thought or two about the experience of being separated for 5 months from my wife of 34 years. 

And, finally, this humbling note.  My last blog was posted on December 5.  Between December 5 and now…without any new blog entry…the “hits” on my site only dropped by 30%.  It seems I’m nearly as popular when I don’t write as when I do!  Undeterred, I promise to provide some freshly ground caffeinated God-talk very soon.

Peace, Jon

Monday, December 5, 2011

Was Mary the First?

Was Mary the first?
     Was she the first woman to whom Gabriel appeared?
          The first to be called to serve as the theotokos - the God-birther?
               The first to ponder the meaning of this kind of surrender;
                    this kind of sacrifice?

Was Mary the first?

I think not.
     There may have been one whose sophistication exceeded
          those who may claim ability with angels.
     There may have been another too proud to yield
          to a telos demanding such time and selflessness;
               too goal-oriented to consider this inconvenient detour.
     There may have been another too busy, too important
          to surrender reputation to such inexplicable circumstances.

Was Mary the first?
     Perhaps, not the first to be invited.
          But,...the first to say,
               "Let it be to me, according to thy will."

Yet one more question, dear friends,
     begs for an answer.
Yet one more question
     haunts our very soul:

Was Mary the last?

Was she the last to whom an angel spoke
     of God's invitation to live out an inexplicable mystery?
Was she the last called to set aside a time of life
     for the purpose of growing and nurturing...
          love within,
               grace within,
                    peace within,
                         hope within?
Was her call to abandon goals, dreams and reputation
     to an unknown, yet God-filled telos the last ever offered?
Was she the last to ever utter,
     "Let it be to me, according to thy will,"
          while not knowing fully where it led
               or what it ultimately would demand?

Was Mary the last?

I pray not...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

...In My Heart...

This video has crossed my computer desktop more than once recently and I’m just enough of a mystic to think that God may be trying to get my attention.  It’s part of a presentation Francis Chan gave at the RightNow Pastors Conference.  Here it is…

I love the last analogy about telling your child to clean their room.  How true!  We take Jesus’ words.  We parse them in Greek, then in English, in an effort to “mine the richness” as one professor used to tell us.  But in doing so, don’t we also often find ways to ‘spiritualize’ the teaching rather than ‘physicalize’ (new word there, I think) it?  We ponder, we meditate, we question, we delve, and when we’re sure we’ve cogitated the life out of it, we move on to more of Jesus’ words and begin again. 

We often sing, “Lord, I want to be a Christian….in my heart.”  However, the unsung expectation held by many seems to be something like this: “Lord, I want to keep my Christianity…in my heart.”  Instead of the seat of motivation, the heart has become a sealed receptacle of all things Christian for many of us.  I include myself, a clergyperson, because who else can better spiritualize the Gospel than one trained in parsing Greek/Hebrew, de-contextualizing, de-mythologizing, etc.?

Moving it from heart to mouth, or hands, or feet is risky business.  Proof?  It is so risky, so fear-instilling, to let this Jesus move from my heart to my mouth that, according to Doug Anderson, executive director of the Bishop Rueben Job Center for Leadership Development, the average United Methodist member invites only one person to worship every 38 years (  To be fair, I’ve seen others say the figure is once every 15-17 years.  Even so, we either are too afraid we’ll appear  pushy or we don’t really believe what we say we believe about the possibility of a transformed life, transformed community or transformed world.  In other words, what really is at stake when we fail to let Jesus out of our heart to become actual words and actions? 

Though there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the seeming disinterest that the majority of the population under the age of 40 has in organized religion, it’s definitely not a disinterest in things related to faith or spirituality.  Far from it.  I’ve encountered many in that age category who are desperately seeking a way to incorporate a spirituality into their daily lives.  However, the post-modern mindset in this seeking process is most often this: Please show me a spirituality that is greater than something to merely think about.  The “middle road,” “I’m just going to think about a world where everyone cleans their room,” forms of spirituality and approaches to being the Body of Christ carry little persuasive power anymore.

Solutions?  The solutions are easier to describe than managing the response they generate in the average mainline church.  We know the litany of solutions: take seriously our membership vows, provide opportunities for real hands-on service, equip all to be able to tell their faith story, reorganize local church structures and infuse new leadership…  This list is barely a beginning, and more complete listings can be found at most church vitality websites.  The secret is learning to respond to and sometimes ignore those for whom this is a stretch and these expectations were not something they “signed up for.”  I know when I feel stretched – and when I’m confronted with something I don’t remember signing up for – it is at those moments when I learn what is actually…in my heart…

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Crunky Questions - Redux

I want to thank you for your crunky prayers which were requested in my October 4 blog in which I shared my concerns for leading some studies that would certainly generate crunky questions (you can find that blog and the definition of ‘crunky’ here).  

Briefly, I was concerned about the questions that might arise in the three small groups I led during our October small group immersion experience.  The studies were Christian Atheist (Craig Groeschel), The Reason for God (Timothy Keller), and Revelation – Unraveling God’s Message of Hope (Ben Witherington).  Some of the topics covered in one or more of these studies included: theodicy (the problem of evil), our relationship with money, heaven, hell, Christianity’s relationship with other world religions, hypocrisy, and the parousia (second advent of Christ), to name a few.  To anyone who’s ever led a small group or Sunday School class, lay or clergy, this list sounds like a minefield of questions capable of blowing up with little warning.

Turns out, it wasn’t a minefield at all…just a mine.  From this mine I have been gathering valuable ore in the form of observations concerning believers today.  Here are a few…

·         Folks new to the Christian faith as well as those who have sat in our pews for decades are yearning for a place where it is safe to ask questions.  Out of some of these conversations came the painful realization that questions have remained unasked for years because it was either directly or indirectly communicated that such questions revealed a lack of faith…or, salvation.
·         Many people are yearning for an informed, holistic study of scripture that is done in community.  Some have experienced real pain and borderline abuse generated by those whose individual, subjective view of scripture is wielded like a club.  
·         People resent having their thinking done for them by any one person or institution.  Folks want to be informed, equipped and then trusted to discern their faithful responses to the questions of the day.  It’s like those math textbooks we had in high school where the answers to the odd numbered problems were found in the back.  The reason all the answers weren’t given was to ensure the student was equipped and informed as to discern the answer on their own.  Too many experience church as a place where the moral/ethical/theological answers are all predetermined and the average person cannot be trusted to work out the problem on their own.
·         There are many people in our churches who highly desire and value opportunities to actually enact their Christian faith on a daily basis.  Living in a day where schedules are already over-booked, belonging to a church for purely social reasons is senseless especially those who are under 45 and newer to the faith.  In other words, the phrase ‘nominal Christian’ is an oxymoron to such folks.

  • Seekers and those new to the faith are first frustrated and then discouraged by long-time Christians and church members who openly confess an ignorance of the basics of the Christian faith, Scripture, and liturgical traditions as if they were 'extra-curricular' to the membership experience. 

For most of you, there may be nothing new in this brief listing.  I, like many clergy, have read about these dynamics as the harbingers of the post-modern age.  But, to see them actually lived out in a context free enough to allow such post-modern questions, behaviors and expectations has been powerful to me. 

And, my mom may have been wrong.  It’s not always impolite to answer a question with a question.  To answer some questions too soon kills the inquisitive nature of our minds that leads us to deeper faith.  To keep the question alive with another question  is to venture deeper into the mine where the really precious ideas and insights can be found.

Peace, Jon

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Midwives & General Conference

O God, they begged you for help when they were in trouble,
   when your discipline was so heavy
   they could barely whisper a prayer.
Like a woman having a baby,
   writhing in distress, screaming her pain
   as the baby is being born,
That's how we were because of you, O God.
   We were pregnant full-term.
We writhed in labor but bore no baby.
   We gave birth to wind.
Nothing came of our labor.
   We produced nothing living.
   We couldn't save the world.
                    - Isaiah 26:16-18  The Message

It's probably just me...or maybe it's just here in Anchorage...but it seems as if we're in the midst of some kind of baby boom.  One of the churches I serve is blessed with several newborns with some still on the way.  It seems as if everywhere I go, I see pregnant women!  What's going on?

It might be a real boom - or, more precisely, a Boomer echo, since most of these pregnant women would be children of the Baby Boom generation.  Or, it might be that I am experiencing that psychological phenomena of a heightened optical awareness of certain things around me because they align with what I'm experiencing personally.  My wife and I once purchased a certain red auto because we were sure it was the only one like it for miles around.  We saw at least a dozen of them in the following week.  More to the point, perhaps the reason I seem to notice more pregnant women is because our older daughter is now carrying our first grandchild.  You see, all of that was just an excuse to tell you I'm going to be a grampa for the the first time.

However, there is a reason for the Isaiah 26 quote at the beginning of this blog.  Whether there really is a baby boom or my awareness is just a projection of my life on the world around me, I have been reflecting a lot on the birthing process in recent days.  Wait...I already know that any man foolish enough to opine too much about the birthing process deserves whatever grief he gets from spouses, mothers, sisters, daughters, female colleagues and co-workers, and pretty much any woman who has given birth or soon will.  I fully embrace the ancient notion that the reason God decided men could not give birth is because our pain threshold is entirely too low to endure it.  I have nothing but awe and respect for all women who have given birth and immeasurably more so for those who choose to do it a second time or more.

My reflection has more to do with my election to the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  General Conference is a quadrennial meeting gathering laity and clergy from around the world to discern, discuss and enact the rules and structures that will shape the future of the church.  For most of the last 40 years, General Conference sessions have made news through their discerning and fussing over many of the socio-political hot topics of the day: abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment, war, economic justice, et al.

In contrast, the 2008 General Conference spent much time and energy around issues of structure and, by its action, ensured the conversation would continue in 2012.  That's not to say the topics that made headlines in previous years were totally ignored.  They weren't.  But, as an interested observer, it seemed to me that they were overshadowed by the institutional concerns for a sustainable structure for the future.

In one of the many pre-General Conference online articles/blogs I've read, one metaphor has caught my attention.  Of course, I'm never prescient enough to record who wrote what...but here's a rough estimate: We're living in a time when our denomination is experiencing the labor pains of birthing the church of the future, which will be much different than the church of the past.

If true, and I believe it is, one question emerges: What role will the 2012 General Conference play in the birthing process?  One choice is for the Conference to see itself as a collective midwife - coaching, coaxing, encouraging and comforting during this time of emerging new life.  Or, another choice is to continue the role most bureaucracies play when confronted with significant change and/or downsizing; that is as the stereotypical expectant father of the 50's and 60's - not in the birthing room but pacing nervously in the waiting room, nearly panicked by the immensity of the meaning and impact of new life.  Even more, all the energy spent by this father is so removed from the actual birthing process that it affects neither the pains of birth or the new life waiting to emerge.  This nervous pacing only reveals a combination of helplessness and fear concerning the ramifications of all changes new life brings to any family or institution.

So, to borrow Isaiah's metaphor, we will either engage the process by coaching, coaxing and encouraging or, by continued rhetorical pacing, we will give birth to the wind of our own words alone.  My continuing prayer for myself and all General Conference delegates: Give us the courage to be midwives.  Amen.