Born in the Mess with the Rest of Us

Whatever we say about conception (either Mary’s or Jesus’), Jesus’ birth was anything but immaculate. Never mind the manger. The Holy Family made the best of their circumstance. The stable wasn’t anything like the free-standing-structure in our traditional Christmas crèche. More than likely, it was the enclosed porch found at the entry of a traditional Palestinian house—the place where animals were locked up for the night. There was no inn keeper, or even an inn, in the contemporary sense, with a no-vacancy light flashing. There just wasn’t space in the guest room, someone was already staying there. The house was full, but their hosts found a way to accommodate Mary and Joseph.  They set up a space in the stable area, turning their manger into a makeshift cradle for the child that would soon arrive(see Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, IVP Academic, 2008, p33-36).

But even if Jesus wasn’t born in a barn, and the stable area was made neat and tidy, births are messy affairs. I am a dad. I was there when each of my four kids were born. Their delivery rooms all had clean sheets and shiny floors, every surface super clean and sanitized. But then blood and amniotic fluid smeared and splattered during the happy chaos of delivery. Births are beautiful. I wouldn’t have missed any of my children’s births. Births are always messy.

We sanitize Christmas, don’t we? We’ve each given and received Christmas cards picturing the new born Jesus—ivory skin gleaminghis head crowned with a luminous glow. In reality, he was wrinkled and red and covered in vernix. The hair on his head, if he had hair, was matted with amniotic fluid, blood and meconium.

Perhaps we imagine a picturesque scene: The holy family gathered around the manger under the open air under the Bethlehem sky, cows and sheep gathered, watching reverently. The cattle are lowing and the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he made. But when Son of God  took his first breath and the cool night air hit his lungs and, like all babies, he screamed, aware for the first time that his mother’s warmth no longer enfolded his whole person. He desperately cried for comfort. Mary held him up to her breast, and he latched for the first time.

With the awkwardness of all new parents, Mary and Joseph attempted to fasten a diaper on Jesus for the first time. He peed all over them. They forgot to pack a change of clothes. The Son of God began his earthly reign. It would be months before his parents had a decent night’s sleep.

This was like no other birth, but in so many ways it was exactly like every other birth. The promise and the joy of the Incarnation is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus’ birth was just as chaotic and messy as all other births. This was the day that God became fully human.



Santa Claus is Coming to Town!

I didn’t grow with Santa Claus.

Both my parents were raised with a fundamentalist suspicion of Santa. He was a distraction from the true meaning of Christmas and evidence of the secularization and over-commercialism of the season. They didn’t stop me from standing in line to see Santa at the mall or from watching Christmas movies on TV, but they made certain I knew that the presents under the tree and all the holiday fun was their doing, not Santa’s.

In my 20s, I remember conversations with friends who said they stopped believing in God when they stopped believing in Santa Claus. I concluded that perhaps my parents were right, and it was best not to lie to your kids.

So when I became a dad, my wife and I never really pushed the Santa myth on our kids. We were as generous as we were able each Christmas, filling the floor under the tree with gifts. We talked with our oldest daughter a few times on how Santa is a fun story, but that was it (though she wasn’t supposed to spoil the fun of other families).

I didn’t think my kids were really missing out on anything, until our second child, at the tender age of five asked us one evening, “Why does Santa not come to our house?” Her childhood wonder was intact, but she felt excluded. So that year, for the first time we let Santa into our home. And we’ve been doing it since.

Sometimes Santa brings a present for each kid but he always fills the stockings. Our kids are disappointed if Santa forgets to give them toothpaste and an orange, though not all of Santa’s offerings are so practical. Mostly, Santa gives our kids the same made-in-China crap our kids see at the Dollar Tree. Clearly, with more 7 billion people on the planet, Santa’s workshop has had to do its fair share of outsourcing.

20171217_115255.jpgFor just over a year now, Santa has attended our church in Medford, First United Methodist Church (the Church of the Rogue). He came in full Christmas regalia this past Sunday, and after the service, kids and families took photos with him. It was a joy to see how excited our two-year-old was to see him. At the same age, his brother and sisters were as frightened of Santa as they would be of any bearded man at the mall who wanted them to sit on his lap. But our two-year-old smiled and shook, he excitedly squealed and in a little song voice chanted, “It’s Santa, It’s Santa. . .” Santa has also carved out time to come to church this coming Sunday as well. Even though it’s Christmas Eve and a busy day for him! Our pastor will interview him during her sermon (service at 10:30 if you’re in town for Christmas).

I had an out-of-season conversation with Santa a while back (AKA Don). He’s been doing the Santa gig for years and carries a Chris Kringle ID in his wallet. Even in the Summer, he is never totally out of character. He is the real deal.

I remember him telling me how he regards the Santa mantle as a ministry and he told me about times when kids asked for stuff that couldn’t be wrapped in pretty paper with a bow and placed under the tree. Broken families, terminal diagnoses, tension at home, Santa sees. Santa knows. When a child asks him for something which he can’t deliver on (e.g., “Santa, can you bring my dad back?”), he prays with children and points them to Jesus. Santa can’t always do anything about the things kids face, but he knows the power of Christ’s presence and isn’t afraid to tell them of the true meaning of Christmas.


My friend Leroy is also Santa this year. He is the perfect choice to play the part. He has an authentic and hearty laugh. And he’s a big guy, just tall and round enough to fill Santa’s suit and boots.  Yet Leroy is also a different kind of Santa from the many we see around.
Leroy Barber is an African American minister and activist living in Portland.  He serves on the boards of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), The Simple Way and EEN, the Evangelical Environmental Network and He and his wife Donna have been active in mission and ministry for decades. Together they founded The Voices Project, an organization that promotes and trains leaders of color.
25299334_10156201567834467_4525382477829976548_nWhen Leroy shared pictures of himself in Santa garb on social media, he got some clap back for not conforming to the dominant cultural image of St. Nick. Here was Leroy’s response:

Ok I will answer publicly the behind the scenes criticism of #blacksanta

My wife and I are in the vocation of youth and leadership development. This can start when kids of color are young. The images that children of color see are overwhelmingly white when it comes to heroes. This is a big problem and it starts young kids of color to doubt themselves and their significance in the world and puts negative images of themselves in their minds. Check out doll test if you don’t believe me. Taking an image like Santa Claus and changing it to a black man does more than make for a good picture outwardly it forms a good image in the soul even if it’s fairy tale. Fairy tales helps us dream of ourselves and be inspired in positive ways. I took pictures with adults yesterday who came alone because they to need to dream of themselves differently in a world that is crushing down on them. We also had many white parents of black children who want their children to see these images, and so many families of color. I was changed as I represented the man who brings gifts and I was black. The gifting was mutual. #blackrolemodels

I hope that helps my critics to chill a bit.

Leroy as Santa subverts the dominant narrative of white supremacy and showsAfrican American children and communities of color that their skin and bodies matter too. That despite dominant cultural images which tells them they don’t matter, they do.They are children of God and yes, Santa comes for them. This is a picture of Jesus.

I still sometimes say curmudgeonly slogans to my kids like, “If you re-arrange the letters in Santa it spells SATAN,” or “Santa Claus is Satan’s Cause!” But I don’t believe it for a second. Leroy and Don are both Santa’s which bring the Presence of Christ with them. They give Jesus to people.

I think sometimes about the people I’ve met who’ve stopped believing in God when they stopped believing in Santa. Maybe the image of God they held in their mind was as cultural and casual as our images of Santa. Maybe faith was just another family tradition. I am committed to showing my kids Jesus, and I have discovered that Santa is not the adversary I once imagined him to be.

It is Advent. Jesus is coming. And he isn’t the only one.

The Axe Man: a kids book review

Ever wonder where Christmas trees came from? Claudia Cangilla McAdam’s Kristoph and the First Christmas Tree describes the story:

It was Christmas Ekristoph-and-the-first-christmas-treeve in the year of our Lord, 722,  Kristoph, an orphan boy, went with missionary priest, Boniface through the countryside, hurrying to reach the village before nightfall. They  come upon a group of people in the forest worshiping an oak tree, . There is a boy bound in their midst. Boniface intervenes, the pagan worshippers sneer. To prove that the oak was powerless and that Boniface’s God was not, Boniface fells the oak with a single stroke of his axe. The sacred oak was destroyed, but inside its trunk was a fir tree as big as man.  Boniface called it “the tree of the Christ Child,” and instructed the men to bring this tree into their home, warning them “it will not shelter evil deeds, loving gifts and lights of kindness.” He chops down the fir tree with a single stroke of the axe, and the men carry it away. Boniface, Kristoph accompany the rescued child, the son of a Chieftain, to his home with the promise of Christmas dinner awaiting them. They find another evergreen along the way, and cut it down for their celebration. This time it takes three whacks for Boniface to fell the tree. The decorate the tree, topping it with a beeswax candle.

This is the stuff of legend. There really was a Saint Boniface who led the Anglo-Saxon mission to Germania. He really did fell a Great Oak tree worshipped by the land’s pagan inhabitants (somewhere near Hesse, Germany). Did Boniface cut it down with one axe strike? Was there a fir tree growing from the stump? Who’s to say? I wasn’t there.

McAdam’s telling of the story is a fun folk tale for children, accompanied by Dave Hill’s illustration (Hill was the illustrator for the brilliant and beautiful Hildegard’s Gift). The story is entertaining for kids of all ages. The book closes with a prayer of blessing for a Christmas tree based on St. Boniface’s words. I give this four stars! ★ 

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Still Waiting After All these Weeks: further thoughts on Advent before we’re done

It is past the third Sunday of Advent and our waiting and longing is swallowed up by shopping, concerts & pageants, Cranberry Bliss bars & Peppermint mochas, baking, decorating, and holiday parties. These are all great, but it is challenging to ‘wait for the Lord’ in this season of distraction!. I reflected in an earlier post on how entering into ‘waiting’ is to be dissatisfied with the status quo, to long for something better. But what can be better than ‘the most wonderful time of the year?!?” I know Christmas time can be depressing, but I get excited each year and I want each Christmas to be special and memorable. I get caught up in whirlwind and you probably do too.

When the first Christmas happened it was sudden. An angel appears to a teenage girl and calls her ‘highly favored.’ She is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and, as a virgin, becomes pregnant with Jesus–God of the universe come in human flesh. From the time of Gabriel’s angelic visitation to Jesus’ birth in a barn, Mary waits, the way all women wait for their baby to come. But the Christmas story are not what Israel was waiting for. God becoming human was so wonderful and surprising that nobody was waiting for that! They were waiting for Israel’s redemption and restoration and the full return from exile. The Israelites longed to be free from the Romans (the last in a long line of pagan-overlords). The first Advent was as much about surprise as waiting.

So why do we institutionalize waiting? Eschatology is a difficult subject to untangle but part of our Advent waiting is about Christ’s return–His second Advent. If anyone tells you that they know exactly what Jesus’ return is going to look like because they read it in the Bible, beware. They are going to sell you a series of novels or make movies which are a pain in the left-behind to watch. We know Jesus is coming back and we hope and long for the Day, but the details remain a mystery, locked in the apocalyptic language of Revelation. The second Advent also carries the same element of surprise as the first. And we wait. . . .

One way to understand waiting is ‘cultivated attentiveness.’ When you wait, in the Christian sense, you are looking for where God’s Kingdom will break in. You watch. You read the ‘signs.’ You listen.

Part of my regular morning routine is showering (maybe yours too?).My bathroom is far enough away from our water heater that when I turn the hot water on, it takes a couple minutes for the water temperature to change from icy cold to warm. I have gotten in the habit of turning the water on and waiting before I climb into the shower. I sense when the hot water comes in. Whatever it is that happens, maybe a slight change in density when the water hits the tile, I hear. And that is when I climb into the shower. If you were to give me an audio recording of a cold shower or a hot shower, I am sure I couldn’t tell you the difference, but because I have learned to pay attention in my daily routine I know when the change occurs.

I think this is part of what it means for us to wait. We pay attention and listen for what God is doing. We look for where the Kingdom is breaking in and people are experiencing freedom. As we pay attention to God, we sense imperceptible shifts. We see the ways Jesus comes to us. We sense a change and know that God is on the move. I am so grateful for this season. I love the music, the Christmas cheer, time with family and friends. But my prayer is that as we wait we will also cultivate an attentive longing for more of Christ’s presence and reign in our hearts! May we long all the more for his return!