Category Archives: treatment of others

Letter 57: O Come O Come Emmanuel

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, which marks the beginning of the Church’s celebration of Christmas. Of course, outside of church, the Christmas season started over a month ago, before Halloween. So this seems to me to be a good time to ponder how one might celebrate the coming of the Christ Child.
If you feel a certain disconnect between the usual festivities and a sense of religious observance or devotion, you’re not alone. This is a very old problem. Every year since 1965, Charlie Brown has bemoaned the empty feeling the flurry of festivities brings on. In 1953, singer Red Foley was urging listeners to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” My Puritan ancestors believed that the Christmas festivities were nothing more than popish superstitions, and dispensed with the holiday completely.
The problem stems, I think from Christmas’s origins. I do not mean the actual Incarnation and Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. Today, it’s not very clear what the earliest Christians thought about commemorating this event. Christmas as we know it today starts with the Emperor Constantine. Attributing his successful pretensions to the throne of Rome to God’s favor, Constantine became a Christian, and decided that everyone else should to, by naming Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
This obviously caused some significant dislocation for many people, who may not have given much thought to paganism, but dutifully went through with the established patterns of religious observance. If nothing else some of the old celebrations were fun, often involving feasting and drink and sex.
One of the largest celebrations was the Saturnalia, six days of eating, drinking and partying, in celebration of freedom. It was timed around the winter solstice, which would be the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and thanks to the comparatively colder temperatures, a time when fresh food too longer to spoil. Since there was little agricultural work to be done this time of year, it was a good time for a real celebration. By government order all schools and businesses were shut during the six days of the festival.
This was heady stuff, much loved by people of all stations. And now they would be asked to give this up.
It was thought best to “Christianize” Saturnalia, by drawing out some of its more universal aspects, and now tying them to Christ. Nearly all peoples had a celebration at the winter’s solstice, celebrating the return of light to the world. Jesus declared Himself “The Light of the World,” and so it became a straightforward matter to name this time the celebration of His coming to earth. The gift-giving now echoed the Magi, and the sense of equality and fun was now grounded in our identity and freedom in Christ.
And so the party continued, but now with a tension.
We like giving gifts, mostly because we like getting gifts. As a child, I timed my desires around the twin poles of Christmas and my birthday. Thankfully, they were sufficiently spaced out to make this possible. I loved the food of Christmas, too, the candy and cookies, the departure from the usual fare.
But when I think about what it is we are supposed to be celebrating, I find a disconnect, particularly when I read many of the familiar Bible passages. Indeed, if I were to summarize what the Bible has to say about Advent and Christmas, it would be this: “The King is coming, Get ready!”
“For just as the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered into the ark. And they did not know anything until the deluge came and swept them all away. So also the coming of the Son of Man will be. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore be on the alert, because you do not know what day your Lord is coming!” Matthew 24:37-42 (LEB)
So I think it is helpful to separate what we might term “secular” Christmas celebrations from “religious” or devotional observances. Gift-giving, decorations, cookies, and parties are all fine, but they do nothing to prepare us for the coming of the King. It is also helpful to realize that not everyone is going to agree with that secular-religious distinction. We have gotten far too bothered about how other people celebrate, or do not celebrate, Christmas. If we are serious about following Jesus, we would do better, by far, to ask how he wants us to prepare for His coming.
So, over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time thinking about this. How do we get ready?

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Letter 56: An Oration for the Fourth

Put not your trust in Princes, nor in the son of man, for there is no help in him.
His breath departeth, and he returneth to his earth; then his thoughts perish.” Psalm 146:3-4 (Geneva)

In Jeremiah 29, God speaks to the exiles from Judah through the prophet.  He has a hard message for them.  Their identity had been bound up in their land.  It had been their inheritance, given them by God, and the Temple was where God Himself dwelt in their midst.  Now the Temple was destroyed, it’s surviving treasures carted off by the King of Babylon to fill his treasury, and the people themselves forcibly remove and scattered over the breadth of the Babylonian Empire.

What were they to do?  Hitherto, the message was clear, faithfulness to God was readily translated into political success and power.  The message ran from the sad story of Judges through the ebb and flow of Kings and Chronicles.  Indeed, the message of Jeremiah himself to the people until now had been that God was rewarding the faithlessness of His people by driving them from their land and removing all traces of their political independence.  Little wonder, then, that God’s people veritably drip with bitterness in Psalm 137 as the reflect upon their new life in a strange land.

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So consider well, then, what God is asking His people to do in Jeremiah 29.  Seek the welfare of the city to which you have been exiled.  Pray for it.  Pray for its leaders.  Build your lives where you are now.  Plant gardens.  Put down roots.  Sing the songs of Zion.  For the Lord God shall be with you, and not with those who remain in the land of your ancestors and in the holy city itself.

This upended the entire thrust of the story as they knew and understood it.  Their identity as God’s people was not tied to geography, nor was God Himself.  Faithfulness was not linked with political power and independence.  His message was clear, if they had the whit to read it: Church and State are not one and the same.

But we long for power.  The Jews of Jesus’ day  yearned for a political as well as a religious Messiah.  This was Pilate’s understanding, too, and he pressed Jesus on this, and he walked away confused.  Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:28-40)  But this world is all we understand, and want.

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On this Independence Day, we would do well to remember those exiles by the waters of Babylon.  Perhaps our hearts are filled with bitterness and rage.  How can we celebrate a country that perpetrates injustice?  Perhaps we long for the day when power shall be ours again, when the Kingdom of God and America are one and same, and celebrate this day as the promise of triumph.

God has given us the state to order our public lives, to enact justice between peoples, that we might live our lives in peace and tranquility.  And well we need it.  But in government rests not our ultimate hope.  There are limits to what it can and cannot do.  For we are exiles in this world, and we yearn to yet arrive at that City whose light is the Lamb and whose streams give water to the tree of life.

Let us then seek the welfare of this, the city of our exile.  Let us hold our rulers to account, that they would govern more diligently, more wisely, and more justly.  But let us not become enamored with the power that rests in government.  Let us give thanks for the freedoms that we do enjoy, for the abundance in our midst.  And let us work such that all men may yet experience these.

Praise thou the Lord, O my soul.
I will praise the Lord during my life; as long as I have any being, I will sing unto my God.
Put not your trust in Princes, nor in the son of man, for there is no help in him.
His breath departeth, and he returneth to his earth; then his thoughts perish.
Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God,
Which made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is; which keepeth his fidelity forever,
Which executeth justice for the oppressed, which giveth bread to the hungry; the Lord looseth the prisoners.
The Lord giveth sight to the blind: the Lord raiseth up the crooked: the Lord loveth the righteous.
The Lord keepeth the strangers: he relieveth the fatherless and widow: but he overthroweth the way of the wicked.
The Lord shall reign forever: O Zion, thy God endureth from generation to generation. Praise ye the Lord.  Psalm 146

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Letter 50: With a Shine on Your Shoes

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Last week, I decided to polish my shoes.  It has been a long time since I last did so, and it’s important to keep them polished.  They last longer that way.  It was one of the odd rituals of manhood instilled in me by my father.  I can remember helping him polish his shoes as a child.  He had a wooden shoe-shine box where he kept the supplies.  The handle doubled as a stand for the shoe.  Eventually as I kept my shoes longer, he showed me how to polish my own.

First, remove all visible dirt and debris with a soft brush, then apply the polish.  Wait a few minutes and then buff.  Repeat for additional shine.  For added protection and moisturizing, I learned to apply mink oil, which gave my shoes a glossy shine.  Once complete, take satisfaction in a job well done.

The message was clear, as a man, you take care of your possessions and your appearance.  Learn to sew buttons, darn socks, even hem trousers.  I have now owned the same pair of penny loafers for thirty years.  If you look closely, you’ll know that they’ve been re-soled and re-heeled, but that’s the only real sign of their age.

But it’s getting to be more of a challenge.  The last time I had my shoes worked on, I had to use a local dry-cleaner, as there are no cobblers in my area.  The same seems to apply to tailors.  Perhaps this is why people dress up so infrequently these days.  There is something about wearing a suit tailored to your frame.  Clothes off the rack have an element of shapelessness to them.  But then, we live in a shapeless age.

It may seem strange to you to find a reflection on something as prosaic as shoe polishing with all of the screaming headlines demanding our action and attention.  Perhaps, but I would submit that the discipline of keeping your shoes polished builds a frame of mind and character, badly needed.  We would all do well to take care of those things entrusted tour custody, to minimize waste, and to present ourselves at our best, not merely for our own sake, but as a measure of respect due to others.

He that is faithful in the least, he is also faithful in much: and he that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much. If then ye have not been faithful in the wicked riches, who will trust you in the true treasure? And if ye have not been faithful in another man’s goods, who shall give you that which is yours?”  Luke 16: 10-12 (Geneva)

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