Archive | December, 2012

The Color Purple

The sanctuary was decorated for Advent last Sunday, and I thought it was beautiful.  Others did too.  But a few commented on the purple theme.  “It’s Christmas-time, right?” they said.  “Then why is purple the color?”

This is known in the business as a teaching moment.  And I took advantage of it.

But I’m still wondering about the comments.  It’s no wonder that Christians struggle with the surrounding culture at this time of year when they don’t know much about their own history and traditions.

One way to observe the season – and it’s growing in popularity – is to accuse Western culture of declaring “war on Christmas.”  You observe the season in this way, for example, by boycotting stores where employees call out “happy holidays,” instead of “merry Christmas.”  Facebook posts too become opportunities to be aggressive – and obnoxious – about “the true meaning of the season.”

But being angry and confrontational seems – to me, anyway – to defeat the meaning of the season.  If the Prince of Peace is coming into the world, then there ought to be a different way of celebrating, don’t you think?

And there is.

Almost from the beginning of the church – we’re talking about nearly 2,000 years of history here – Christians have observed this season of the year as a time of waiting and watching.  Christians have slowed down while the rest of culture has speeded up.  Christians have spent time in quiet reflection – for example, cultivating the habit of wonder.

Instead of obligatory parties and a frenzied atmosphere of gift giving, Christians have historically opted for something quieter and more contemplative.  My daughter’s church in St. Louis observes the start of the season with a “watch night” service.  Talk about counter-cultural!

The staff at my church is forgoing the usual Christmas party this year by volunteering for a day at The Shepherd’s Way, a local homeless shelter.

So, back to the color purple.  At this time of year we wait for the arrival of a king, and the color of royalty has always been purple.  Hence, the liturgical color of the season is … yes, purple. (And for those of you who are interested, white is the color of Christmas and Easter, while green is the color for the season following Pentecost.)

The trajectory of the Christian church these days has been away from custom and tradition.  New churches open up regularly in warehouses and shopping malls, not the suburban neighborhoods of the 1950s.  And while I am drawn to much of the creativity and energy I see in these innovations, I wonder about what we’re leaving behind – like the observance of a season such as Advent or the use of liturgical colors in worship such as purple.

These things have stood the test of time for a reason.  They teach us about who we are and what we value.

Speaking only for myself, I’ve had enough of Christmas as the culture around me likes it, and I’ll take custom and tradition any day.

Anybody with me on this?

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Visiting the shut-ins

Tomorrow at church we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  It’s the first Sunday of Advent.  It’s the first Sunday of the month. It’s an important day – not for everybody, maybe, but for me.

When I was growing up, the Lord’s Supper had a very specific meaning, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but I suspect I’m not the only one who thinks this: In my childhood, what the Lord’s Supper meant more than anything was that the service would run over by about a half hour.

A long dreary prayer, lots of elaborate serving rituals.  With any luck, someone would mess up while serving, and at least that would be interesting and funny.  But the Lord’s Supper was never more than some long thing I would have to endure before getting home.

You won’t be surprised to know that something has changed for me about this meal.

During my first few years of ministry, half of my job description involved calling on “shut-ins,” which is what we called them then.  Now, they’re “homebound,” I know, but they will always be “shut-ins” to me.

And looking back, I don’t think I’ve ever had a better job description.  I think I would gladly trade for it right now.  On a couple of afternoons each week I would pack a bag of bread cubes, and put a jar of Welch’s grape juice in the car, and off I would go to see four or five of our church members who couldn’t get out anymore – except maybe for the occasional doctor’s appointment.

And to tell you the truth, I didn’t do very much.  I rang the doorbell and went inside and sat in the living room because that’s where you sit when the preacher comes over.  And then I listened.

Usually I didn’t have to say very much.  They were always glad to do the talking.  And to be perfectly honest, this doesn’t really require a Masters of Divinity degree from Princeton Seminary.

My dream, while I was growing up, had been to catch for the Detroit Tigers.  That was how I hoped to spend my young adult years, my 20s.  And instead during those years I sat in the living rooms of old people, listening to them tell me the stories of their lives.

And what did I offer them?  Well, I thought I was offering a cube of bread and a swig of Welch’s grape juice.  But I can see now that it was a different kind of gift.  It was the gift of presence.  I was there.  A pastor from the church.  Someone was paying attention, listening.  They always made me feel as though I was offering them something extraordinary.  I now I realize that I was.

So, my feelings about this meal have changed.  We’re still offering little bits of bread and a tiny sip of juice, but what’s really happening in the meal is that God is offering us his presence.  He’s here.  Emmanuel.  God with us.

I can’t wait until tomorrow.

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