Soul and Suffering

Some people should not attempt to sing spiritual carols like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” I’m an American, I lived in the South; no Christmas was finished until someone sang this as a solo, or a choir echoed it through an all-pews-filled church. It is a beautiful, beautiful hymn, written by people who had longed for freedom and peace. It has to be sung from the heart, or not at all.

Gospel hymns make it into hymnals for a couple of reasons. One is the perception that they are easy to sing. The other is that they are ethnically inclusive. The former is usually not true, because the notation of the hymn is untrue to the improvisation of the original, and the second is often condescending, removing something beautiful from its context and trying to make it universal.

To sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” well means that the singers have to know the experience of waiting patiently, with sometimes just a glimmer of hope. The singers can’t be afraid of the song. They’ve got to be willing to rock it some, give it some soul, open up to its possibilities and improvisations. It needs to be sung a capella, without amplification, and with an audience who knows where it came from and why, at least somewhere in their hearts. Like many gospel hymns, it is deeper than its simple words and melody would suggest.

I love good gospel hymns, especially the old ones. They speak to the heart of freedom, love and joy. They speak of release from the sins of this world and the glory of the Lord’s world, living amongst us and yet to come. I love it when they are sung by a choir well-versed in the gospel ways, who have sung together for years, whose roots are in gospel and soul. These are the choirs that came up singing a capella because for years the churches couldn’t afford instruments. They trained each successive generation to use their voices like the parts of an orchestra. They make room for the Holy Spirit to enter and transform the singer and the listener.

That doesn’t have to be limited to gospel choirs. Every choir, every church musician could open their hearts to that possibility. Every preacher, every liturgist, every litanist, every listener could ask that Spirit to teach them of liberation, of simple joy, of hope, and of love.

Did You Believe in Santa?

I was raised in a Baptist family that did not teach about Santa bringing gifts. We knew about Santa, and thought it was fun, but my parents were careful to explain that he is pretend, while Jesus is real. So I grew up knowing the difference, and never had my childhood faith shaken by thinking my parents lied to me about one Christmas story, so they must be lying about the other one. (North Pole vs. Bethlehem.) What about others? Did the realization that Santa Claus does not exist (in a real, physical way) affect your belief in Jesus?

Winter Memories, Christmas Past

The three of us were talking about winter and Christmases of our childhoods. I am a rural child; the other two are urban/suburban. I am American; they are Canadian. Their strongest memories of Christmas involve Santa Claus and the Eaton’s department store windows. My Baptist, rural roots didn’t include these.

My parents did not teach us that Santa Claus brought Christmas toys. Santa Claus was a nice story to make children feel special at Christmas, but not real. We still had Christmas stockings, and a “Santa gift” that Mom didn’t want to wrap – usually the big gift, like a tricycle or dollhouse. I don’t know if my younger sisters believed in Santa; I cerainly didn’t, and never did. I remember my mother making it very clear to me, about the age of four, that Santa is a myth, not real like Jesus.

I think I enjoyed Christmas more bcause of it. I liked the Christmas pageant, the Nativity story, and I really loved other people’s creches, although we didn’t have one for a long time. (It was a serious theological issue in the Baptist Church those days – should we have any representations of Christ, or does that encourage idolatry?) The tree, the gifts and the seasonal music were part of a party atmosphere that broke up the dreary days of winter, but not as important as the whole mystery of the Incarnation. Well, I probably didn’t think of it that esoterically, but I had that sense even as a child.

Nicholas and Mother Kay were raised in secular families. Santa was the center of the celebration. They went to department stores to see Santa, and Kay remembers a video phone at one store from which children could talk to Santa. Christmas Eve was full of exciting anticipation, but there must have been many Christmas mornings of disappointment.

In this household, three priests and a small child sharing a roof and table, the two-year-old, Child Patience, brings us a renewed perspective. She knows about Santa (outside influences can’t be helped unless we all move to a strict Old-Order Amish community) but seems to think he is just a cartoon character; she hasn’t encountered a costumed Santa here. And while we have Christmas trees (one is an angel tree, her favourite) the house has several creches and no jolly old elves. She knows who Mary is, and the Baby; that guy Joseph is still not an important part of the story. We stop to look at the creches, and she identifies “Mirrym” and “Baby.” There is a photograph in the hall of a marble statue of Mary and the infant Jesus, and they have been a part of her life since she was herself a babe in arms.

Her Nana, Mother Kay, was talking to an old friend on the phone last week. As usual, Child Patience wanted to chat as well. After a few “hi’s” and giggles, she asked, “Who’s that?”, meaning the person on the other end of the conversation. “It’s Mary,” Nana answered. Child Patience was immediately impressed.”Mirrym!” she cried, pointing to the creche.

Who wants to tell her differently? Other children write letters to Santa, visit Santa at the mall, and may even e-mail him. Child Patience has talked to the Blessed Virgin on the telephone.

Food and Loneliness

I started a mini-rant on a friend’s facebook page when she posted an article on loneliness. The article had implications about social networks and increasing isolation, which is probably true, although I haven’t experienced it as such, because it is an easy way to keep in touch with my busy, computer-literate sisters, nieces and nephews. My sons are more likely to send the long letterish message via e-mail, and I love it when we get to talk on the telephone. My life has kept me more mobile than my family, so the internet has meant that I am in touch with them more than ever before.

The blog here at WordPress has also meant that I could continue in ministry without a parish, and receive the ministry of others beyond a small circle of friends, and I have needed that at times. Electronic, digital communication is a wonder, and I think in general it is useful for promoting the faith even as there are great problems with the technology being misused. But then, this was true of the printing press as well, and even the invention of cheap paper. (Parchment and papyrus take a lot of work and preparation; cotton or woodfiber paper can be made in a couple of days.)

The main drawback to communication at a distance is that it can keep us separated. While communicating, we have no incentive to see each other. We do not share that vital part of human interaction, which is the communal meal. We are designed to share food. It is the most basic of social events.

It begins with family meals, with the infant fed by the mother in the security of her arms, in the presence of the other members of the family. The nursing baby is then given table food, and eventually a seat at the family table. It should be the most secure of all our memories, that we were fed and loved in the presence of the rest of the family.

Our contemporary culture has lost a lot of that basic security. Meals are haphazard events, sometimes eaten in the car or alone or in the presence of strangers (think of the mall food court.) These are not times that evoke a feeling of safety and security. Families struggling with social pressures may devolve into nothing more than individuals sharing a house, all eating at different times, with different motives, and even competing with each other for resources. Food and eating disorders can be the result.

Our elderly who live alone may stop eating properly. Meals remind them that they are alone and lonely, that they are unwanted by family or society. Meal programmes at churches or community centres may bring them together sometimes, but it is not a good substitute for a healthy family life. This isolation of the elderly is a recent phenomenon; most of human history, the older family members remained in a family home with children and grandchildren. They contributed memories, knowledge, household help and childcare. Now they may go to nursing homes long before they are ready, or into seniors’ apartments. This can be a good thing for those who need medical care, or who remain in their home community, but it is very isolating if the elderly move to a new location with unfamiliar faces and places. They may end up eating alone most of the time, or not eating much at all, or eating inappropriate foods out of boredom and depression.

I have been to more Christmas dinners given for the elderly than I can count. They often seem rather forced in jollity, and a poor substitute for the family table. Yes, everyone gets fed, has some company, gets a little souvenir of the day and goes home for a nap. But it is a thin replacement for the daily family meal, and there are eleven other months when there aren’t holiday meals provided. It’s a brief respite from isolation and boredom, but very brief – a ceasefire in the loneliness war.

Many family homes have formal dining rooms, or a large dining area with a big table. People fantasize when they buy a house that they will have family dinners, or intimate romantic suppers, or big parties in these dining areas, but how often do they become deserts, wildernesses of maple furniture and gold-rimmed dishes, never used except for the token holiday meal? The kids eat fast food or sandwiches in the car, and spend more mealtimes with their friends than their parents. Parents eat something out of the microwave or from the coffee shop while flying around from task to task.

Some of us are taking back the table. One of the reasons is that the Lord Jesus Christ gave us a special meal, communion, to bring us together, to nourish us in real physical and spiritual ways. Every meal among Christians is special, set aside, our sharing of God’s gifts, even if it is not the consecrated meal of the altar. We pray for blessing on that meal, and for our needs and the needs of others; it is a sacred time becuase it is so elemental. God gave humanity the good food of the earth in the Garden; humanity fell to temptation and corrupted it. But when we sit down in love and reconciliation at the family or neighbourly table, we are taken back into the goodness of the original home, and share its bounty with God.

Some churches continue the communal aspects of table fellowship with an open meal following their worship. This goes beyond the sign of communion, and takes its understanding of our relationship to God into the world. Perhaps we need to do this more, since the usual denominational “coffee hour” is so often paltry, cold and brief, poorly attended and even resented by those who have to arrive early to fill the pot and lay out the cookies. I was closely involved in the aftermath of a “coffee hour” gone tragically wrong; the spiritual implications of that will reverberate in that community, church and denomination for generations, I believe.

Traditional Christians are trying to take back the traditional family life. We are called to model that for others, to show that it works, that it builds up our families, our children and our elders, and supports our communities.

Familiar Winter Ground

I remembered an old essay of C.S. Lewis’s this morning, which I haven’t read in perhaps twenty years. It seems to be from God in the Dock, although I remember it as having been published in a magazine before that. After a little googling around, I found that many other Christians remembered this essay, year by year, in their blogs. “What Christmas Means to Me” seems to be the title – I don’t have a copy of God in the Dock at hand.

Lewis soon after the war refused to buy into Christmas – what he called Exmass in another essay. He would not buy gifts or send cards, or do more than entertain (which he loved) and get some treats and trinkets for children. He  was mystified as to why Christians did not celebrate the Christ-mass as thoroughly as they ceebrated the pagan Saturnalia.

This essay certainly shaped my view of Christmas, and I am not going to go through all the points. Readers can find it for themselves – I’ll list the sites at the end of the post. But it is just as true now as it was forty or fifty years ago. I have told family and friends this year that I do not want gifts. They can contribute to a food or water charity instead. I have clothes, shelter and nourishment this winter, and I am praying for the courage to seek out a new job. I am not at all concerned about those who purportedly must sell or manufacture for Christmas. So much of what we buy now is manufactured in a totalitarian country where people have been pulled from their self-subsistence lives on the land to work in near-slave conditions. The pittance they are paid is just enough to keep the United Nations from protesting. We would, many of us anyway, be much better off providing for ourselves year-round, as best we can, than buying and selling and speculating. In effect, we have an economy where everyone is taking in each other’s laundry. (For those too young to understand, poor people in past centuries did laundry by hand for their more successful neighbours. It was a life of scalds, lye burns and chilblains, conditions we rarely see in the developed world now.)

There will be hospitality in this household this Christmas, along with prayers and trips to church. There will be treats and trinkets for the very young, and gifts made to others who are in need of some basic items. There won’t be extravagances – no diamonds or perfume or gargantuan toys. There will be love.

To see more of the C.S. Lewis essay, try http:\\rosa-sinensis.blogspot.com/2009/01/rosas-essay-archives-cs-lewis-what.html

And I like Rosa’s blog, so have a look.

And also: http:\\benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/what-christmas-meant-to-cs-lewis.html

Ben’s blog is now at http:\\blog.beliefnet.com/bibleandculture

And if anyone can tell me how to make these links, I’d appreciate it. I am so not blog-savvy.

Advent Discipline, Ekonomia

Most Christians haven’t heard of an Advent fast. The Orthodox keep it quite seriously, as they do all four of the major fasts. But Western Christians, even those raised in the traditional Roman church, have forgotten or never knew about the disciplines of Advent. While keeping a strict fast may only be possible when one is living a monastic life or in a fasting community, some discipline is a good practice in the seasons of preparation before the festivals.

For those of us whose lives overlap the world, we may not be able to be so strict without causing others discomfort or great inconvenience. Honestly, I don’t like cooking two sets of meals myself if a member of the household is not able to fast with us. I know I can’t starve myself on bread and salad for six weeks, either. So this year we have a modified discipline, because I am the only one in the house who is able to fast.

We have another, more practical discipline – a freezer full of meat that needed to be used before it was unusable. Now this is an odd kind of fasting, to eat beef in a fasting season. But it was the most sensible thing to do. Instead of buying fresh meat or even vegetarian foods through the month, our goal is to use up what we have before it is wasted. There are other foods in the pantry as well that we have bought but not used; it is time to clear that out and start over. I don’t want to realize some day that “uh-oh, that has gone way past its sell-by date!” or that a forgotten bag of flour is actually rancid. We have decided to be more mindful of what we have, and give thanks to God by utilizing it.

Some things have gone to the food bank for those who simply can’t keep frozen or fresh things – canned soups, pudding mixes, and so on, that are convenient for those with limited cooking facilities. Right now, we have time, power and appliances to cook almost everything from scratch. This saves money that can be better used to help others.

Our gifts to God, especially when used for the support of others, should be the first fruits, not the last fruits. When the prophet Amos has a vision of a basket of late summer fruit, the Lord tells him it is Israel, and it is not satisfactory. That is because it is the last fruits – the overripe, left behind produce no one really wanted. It is the sacrifice that a negligent people made to God. The people kept the best for themselves, and gave away what they did not want at all. This is no sacrifice.

Most financial advisors will tell their clients, “Pay yourself first,” meaning that you should set aside money in savings at the top of your budget. God tells Christians this: Give generously of your first fruits. Charity is not the last item on the budget; God puts it first. The Lord says, “What you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.” If it were Jesus standing in line at the food bank, or without the money for winter shoes, would you give him something you didn’t want? Wouldn’t you take him home for a beautiful holiday meal, hand him the new boots you were wearing? Would you hand him a stale tuna sandwich or roast a turkey for him? Would you see him walk away in your old gym shoes or your new leather dress shoes?

I have often regretted what I have bought, and I have never regretted what I have given away.

Un-Traditions for Anglicans

I’ve been thinking about Anglican Christmas traditions. I wish we had some better ones, or could get back some of the old ones. We have become a very cultural church, and follow the latest trend a little too closely. Some so-called traditions I would like to see dropped:

1. Christmas trees EVERYWHERE. The Christmas tree did not appear in England until Queen Victoria got married, and was brought in as a German custom by Prince Albert. That’s  all right, but the Victorian tree was a wee thing with a few baubles and some candles stuck on it, and usually sat on a tabletop in the parlour. It was not for public display. The Lutheran legend is that Martin Luther brought home a small evergreen one Christmas eve, and put candles on it to show his children how the trees looked at night with the stars shining through them, a kind of representation in a Nordic way of the night of the Nativity, with the star over Bethlehem, and the angels glowing in the night sky. Well, this was pretty impressive for sixteenth century children who must have had better imaginations than modern children. And that version of why we have Christmas trees is much nicer and sweeter than the sacrifice to Wotan one.

So why do we have to have Christmas trees – massive Douglas firs or the plastic equivalent – everywhere we turn from American Thanksgiving to Epiphany? Because the wasteful large tree has become a status symbol, covered with lots of expensive designer ornaments.

And please, keep the tree out of the church!

2. Expensive parties from November 30 through New Year’s Eve.

Advertising would have us believe that the whole month of December is about parties: glittery clothes, lots of food and drink, decorating the house like Versailles on the Sun King’s birthday. We are reminded and cajoled to shop for the perfect little dress, get our hair dyed, cut and ornamented, paint our faces like courtesans, and wear high heels in the winter. Spend money, look glamorous (although we can be pretty frumpy the other eleven months) and pretend that we live amongst the glitterati and rock stars.

Come on, now. So few of us really aspire to that lifestyle that these holiday ads are nothing but 30-second romance novels. It isn’t going to happen. We don’t live in a world where we get invited to dozens of parties, because most of our families and friends are striving to just get to work and pay the bills. But we buy into it anyway, and indulge in clothes we might wear once, in food and drink no one really needed, and we try to pretend for just a little while that the world is not what it is. This is unhealthy and leads to a huge emotional drop when January 2 comes, and we have loads of laundry to do, a busted bank account, nothing but gumdrops and cheap champagne in the pantry, and a reality of grizzling children and hung-over spouses. And there’s no black-uniformed maid to swoop down, straighten up the mess and set us on our feet. The glmaour was just that – fake stardust and lies. The root of the word glamour is illusion. It is not about financial and social success; it is about being deceived and literally led astray by the dark spirits.

3. Christmas Cards. Considering the amount of waste that goes into sending cards, including trees, money and your time, why are you doing this? Even recycled paper cards are using up a resource that could go elsewhere. Hand-make and hand-exchange a few cards with close friends and family. The children can help with this, or you can utilize your innate artistic skills. It will be more satisfying and take no more time to produce twenty hand-made cards than to address, sign and send 100 general printed greetings. I used to dread the Christmas card exchange, and the resulting flood of return mail. I dropped out of the whole thing when I started seminary. With papers due, I was not going to spend hours addressing envelopes and dutifully writing little progress reports to people I hadn’t seen in years.

That’s a brief list. There may be more…