So You Wanna Keep Christ in Christmas?

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In the past month, I’ve read countless signs in front of churches demanding, “Remember, Jesus is the reason for the season!”

This week, I even saw a sign on a grocery store declaring “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”

And just to keep kids from getting a little too excited, some signs went so far as to say, “Santa never died for anybody!”

Every Advent season, I see signs like these, and year after year, I grow more exhausted with them. I’m tired of the energy expended over the so-called “War on Christmas” when we are still reeling from the aftermath of a poisonous election season and actual wars are destroying the lives of thousands.

I see these signs, and I can’t help but wonder: Who has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, the “unchurched,” or the Christians?

I wonder if so many congregations put messages like this on their signs, because they don’t want to do the hard work of living out the Gospel. They want the words, doctrines, and signs to do all the talking, and more often than not, the message is loud, clear, and cruel: we don’t want you unless you’re ready to prescribe to our rules. They want to say “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” and “It’s Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays!” because that’s a lot easier than saying “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” It’s a lot easier to make Jesus seem as proud and fear-mongering as we are instead of proclaiming the true words of God incarnate: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

This is tough, counter-cultural stuff to swallow. Proclaiming a war to defend and maintain our already high privilege and supremacy is so much easier and, as such, more prevalent. From personal experience, it’s much easier to act with false pride than to live in true humility.

It’s easier to act like shoving the slogan of the culture wards down the throats of “non-believers” is more effective than doing justice for the oppressed, showing mercy towards those who have hurt us, and walking humbly with the God who guides us through times of joy and deep sorrow.

It’s so easy, for everyone, to put words on a church sign, believing in the false hope that this is what will save our dwindling numbers.

It’s not so easy to live in such a way that people already know the deep good news of the Gospel in real ways, ways that can’t be fit onto church signs.

Saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” isn’t a proclamation of the good news of Christmas. It’s an empty, guilt-invoking phrase which does nothing to invite people into living a life devoted to the God who sent him. It does nothing to point to the God of Jesus, who upset the natural order of things in Jesus’ very birth in order to live among us and bring the good news of the beautiful, upside-down kingdom to a dark, hopeless world. It’s a phrase evoked in the name of a baseless culture war that continues to remind those who aren’t already aware that the Church is more concerned with having power than it is with caring for actual people.

It does nothing to explain why Mary accepted such a dangerous, beautiful mission from God. It does nothing to explain why Joseph accepted his role as co-parent to God. It does nothing to explain how significant it is for the Creator of the world to be wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough, because no one would give up their rooms to make way for God in flesh.

Only teaching and living the whole story does that, and it involves more than church signs.

It involves being willing to accept God’s dangerous, beautiful call to live a life of love for the poor, oppressed, marginalized, doubting, and abused. It involves making space not just in your heart, but in your own home and life, for weary travelers like Mary and Joseph. It involves clearing out physical space in your life to welcome the infant Jesus in the form of actual people whom the rest of the world wants to cast aside.

So sure, you can keep doing the “easy” task of putting the same ol’ guilt-inducing messages on your boards each year.

Just remember that eventually, it becomes the hard work of explaining to a lot of those same people who didn’t want to come why you were so preoccupied with proclaiming Jesus’ birthday instead of actually throwing a party for the ones Jesus came to love.

Please, keep Christ in Christmas, but not by forcing people to tell you “Merry Christmas” and demanding the right to put a nativity in front of your store.

Do it by living like Jesus. Then you won’t have to say much of anything, even on a church sign.

What If Mary Wore Pink Chucks?

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As a child, I hated the color pink.

It was a “girly” color, and as a child, I didn’t want to touch anything feminine. I wanted to be seen as tomboyish.

And I hated shoes.

I preferred socks or bare feet, even over rocks, cool hallway tile, slick grass, and scorching blacktop.

But when my mom asked me what I wanted for my 25th birthday a year and a half ago, I shocked her by saying all I wanted was a pair of bright pink Chuck Taylors.

I’m not entirely sure when or why this obsession began. I might have seen someone wearing a pair and been drawn to them. Maybe I finally started warming up to pink. Maybe it was all the Doctor Who I was watching. All I know is I fell in love with the idea of having pink Chucks.

So my very generous mother got them for me on my 25th birthday. And I wore/continue to wear them everywhere.

I wore them to seminary classes, when I spoke at chapel, and to my seminary graduation. I wear them on date nights, while running errands, and when hanging out with my high school Sunday School group. Those shoes make me feel more “me” than any other item of clothing I have.

So what if they are considered by some to be the shoe of choice for the counter culture, a style of conformity for the non-conformists? I love them. They are comfy, bright, and stick out in a way that makes me want to be seen. I feel most comfortable, excited, empowered, and ready to take on the world when I lace them up and walk out the door.

So at choir practice last Wednesday, when I realized the upcoming Sunday was the Third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy and the lighting of the pink candle, and that we would be singing Mary’s Magnificat, I just had to wear those spunky shoes.

But since I’m also a huge people pleaser, I had to ask my choir director if it was OK to do so.

She smiled and nodded as she replied, “Yes. Please wear them.”

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So I wore them to sing the Magnificat, in which Mary proclaims how she, a humble handmaiden, will be regarded as blessed throughout all generations, that God will upset the mighty systems of the rich and lift up the poor and oppressed. And she sings this ballad after she accepts the dangerous call from God, delivered to her by an angel, to bear the Messiah into a dark world, and after an in-utero John the Baptist leaps inside Elizabeth’s womb.

This is no schmaltzy ballad from Mary meek and mild. This is a song of resistance, one which should strike terror in all the elite, belted from the pipes of a fierce female whom, of all the women in the world, God chose to bring the True Light into the world.

This might have even been Jesus’ lullaby.

When this was the song I was called to sing, the pink Chucks were the only shoes I could think of to wear. They made me feel free, subversive, excited, and bold enough to do God’s work of upsetting the powerful, even if that meant upsetting structures from which I have long benefited. I chose these shoes, because they were the color of joy, of the Advent candle and of my own joy in being myself, called to do God’s work, which Mary exemplified in her life and her song.

Maybe Mary would have worn pink Chucks, too, as a display of her femininity and subversiveness for all to see, all that made her the woman God chose to bear Jesus into the world. Maybe she would do this to demonstrate that girls of all ages and from all walks of life have fire in their souls that the world desperately needs. Maybe she would lace up her pink Chucks and tell all the girls and women of the world that when the world tries to denounce their femininity as something less than, something to be violated and exploited, something that makes them “weak” and “meek,” they should show the world that being bold is a strong, feminine trait.

Because we need all the emboldening we can get to proclaim justice and the upside-down kingdom of God into our own dark world. And sometimes our proclaimation outfit is a pair of bright pink Chuck Taylors.

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The Lesson of the Jazzy Flute Solo: An Advent Story

Third Sunday of Advent

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I didn’t grow up in a liturgical church. I grew up Pentecostal, which avoided anything resembling “high church.” I never had an Advent calendar or devotional. I didn’t even know what Advent was until I was a sophomore in college. I told my Episcopal professor this sad fact, and she gave me a look of shock, mixed with a tiny bit of judgment.

Since then, I’ve participated in Advent. I’ve done the devotions, attended the services, and even eaten the tasteless chocolate. Now, I get as excited to celebrate Advent as I do Christmas. This season holds so much, the expectancy of Christ, his presence now, and his reign to come. It’s tension and time-travel. It’s amazing.

My fiance Bryce, our friend Scott, and I are starting a new Advent tradition this year. I made an Advent wreath (and a bit of a poor excuse for one) at my Episcopal Church.

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(When you have cats, your Christmas greenery options are limited.)

Instead of only lighting candles on Sundays, though, we light the appropriate ones every night throughout Advent. We have our own short service with music, Scripture, and prayers. I light the candle, play a song appropriate to that week of Advent, lead Bryce and Scott in prayers, and have one of them read the Scripture of the day. It’s a great practice for our little family.

This first week is about hope. Since Advent is about waiting for a hope that is both here and yet to come, I found the Taize song “Wait for the Lord” very appropriate. Before I rounded my boys upstairs to hold our makeshift service around the wobbly dining room table, I checked YouTube for a good version of the song. I settled on one with no instruments. It sounded solemn and somber, something that would evoke feelings of waiting in desperation for a light to shine in the darkness.

We gathered around the table. I lit the candle and hit play on my phone. The song started.

It was a great start. The somber chanting filled the room lit only by our purple candle. We breathed deep and settled into the atmosphere.

And then, just over halfway through the song, a flute solo began.

Not a classical flute solo either. It was a jazzy solo, one which brought thoughts of Kenny G. and elevators to mind.

Nor was it a short solo. It continued for the remaining two minutes of the chant and only became more jazzy and animated as the song progressed.

Needless to say, the once somber atmosphere crumbled a bit, and this irritated Lindsay the Perfectionist.

The song finally concluded, and we continued our service without anyone saying anything about the musical choice.

I went to my room afterwards to do some writing, and Bryce came in before heading out for the evening. “That was really nice,” he told me. He knew I’d been worried about doing a “good job” leading our tradition, and I appreciated his affirmation.

But I had to correct him.

“You mean it was nice until the jazzy flute solo broke in,” I retorted.

Bryce shrugged. “Actually, I thought the solo was very appropriate.”

I raised a quizzical eyebrow at him (or at least I tried, since I’m bad at raising one eyebrow at a time). “You think so?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “It began solemn, which you wanted. But the flute built it up into a cheer.”

Huh. How about that.

That’s Advent, y’all.

It’s our waiting building up into a cheer. It’s journeying through the somberness with a stubborn joy at the heart of it. It’s frustrating to wait, because we know both how the story ends yet understand how the world still is. But we keep waiting. We keep chanting. And we keep playing solos.

Advent begins with waiting and ends with cheering.

It begins with restless expectation, and it ends with the beginning of God’s upside down kingdom.

The somber tune ends with a jazzy flute solo.

Thank God for that.