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.

Joy to the World!

When Advent began, the Christian blogosphere was a buzz, as always, with grumpy liturgists warning us away from jumping to quickly to yuletide cheer. We were cautioned against carols  and mirth, too much cookies and eggnog. Advent, after all, is about preparing. We hope, we long, we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Lord. In the liminal glow of Advent candle light, we are inviting to make our crooked roads straight and prepare the way of the Lord. A lot of the posts here too, inhabit this waiting space.

But now, two-and-a-half weeks in on a year with a short Advent season, the chorus of cranky Adventists have been drowned out by the holiday cheer. We lit the pink candle this past Sunday, signifying joy, if not the full satisfaction and fulfillment of Christmas joy, at least a foretaste of the joy that is to come.  Perhaps now, we can start singing Joy to the World. And when we do, we will discover it is not a Christmas carol at all, it is Advent all the way down.

According to the fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia) as of the late 20th Century, Joy to the World was the most published Christian hymn in North America. But the 18th’s Century hymn writer, Isaac Watts did not write this hymn with Christmas in mind. There is no angelic chorus or Christmas crèche. No little town of Bethlehem and no shepherds on the hillside.

Joy to World was Watt’s paraphrase of the second half of Psalm 98. Watt’s wrote his hymn in a Christological, Messianic key, but he didn’t envision Jesus’ nativity. This hymn instead images Christ’s final coming when he  will reign over all creation:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love. (The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts, “Psalm 98, part 2,” Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1998).

We sing this as a Christmas carol, mostly because of the way the first verse celebrates that the Lord has come. And yet, the rest of the hymn envisions eschaton. Then the Savior will reign and all sin and sorrow will cease. His blessing will flow into every crack and cranny where the curse is found. The Kingdom of God come in full! Righteousness, and wonder and love!

Despite it’s clearly celebratory tone, the hymn inhabits the liminal, in-between space of Advent. The world it describes, is not yet our world. It is the telos we are moving toward, that which all creation is groaning for.

The Lord has come, and will come. All hardship and affliction will cease and all creation will join in the song of praise: Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ, While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy. JAll the boys and girls: joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me. 

(Image: Anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917), Joy of All Who Sorrow, Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

Heaven Come Down

Waiting with hope is hard work. There are so many things that make us want to give up and despair. Politicians care more about pressing their agenda (or stopping the opposition!) then they do about the poor, the vulnerable, the widowed, the alien and orphaned. Our world has been rocked by earthquakes, high winds & wildfires. Terror, war and the threat of war loom large on the global scene. We worry more now, than we have in decades, about the threat of Nuclear warfare.

Women and men have braved the trauma of reliving hidden pain, sharing stories of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, only to be accused of telling convenient lies designed to discredit honorable men. The others, the silence-breakers we believe, have caused powerful men to topple from their thrones. We are disillusioned. Some wonder is every man secretly like this? 

Our world, our leader, celebrities, are not at all what we wish they were. We aren’t either. Every one of us is broken and capable of hurting others. Alexsander Solzhenitsyn’s comment in the Gulag Archipelago proves true:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. . . . even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.

The Apostle Paul was more holy than most of us but he could still say,” For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).  Nobody measures up, not even ourselves. And it isn’t just with theological ideas like sin and evil, none of us is what we wish we wereThere are things I want to do, risks I think would be worth taking, songs I want my life to sing. But If I’m honest, sometimes I am just too hurt and afraid to do anything great. Feeling stuck, it is easy for us to resign to despair. 

Our Advent hope is this: Jesus is coming. And that is no small thing. 

Our hope is not in presidents, prime ministers, bureaucrats, big government, corporate tax-breaks or trickle down economics. Our hope is not based on systems, structures, and institutions (our participation in these, at its best, manages the harm). Our hope is not in good people having access to the guns, or gun control, a strong police force or the justice system. Our hope is not Hollywood. Our hope is not in social security, or our Roth IRA. Our hope is not in the Paris Agreement and equitable Fair-Trade, as good as these may be. Our hope is not a strong military or good foreign policy. Our hope is not winning so much you get tired of winning. Hope is not appointed as a Supreme Court Justice. Our hope is not just learning to listen to the better angels of our nature. Our hope is not self-actualization.

Advent Hope is the coming of Jesus. We are notoriously bad at saving ourselves.

My favorite contemporary Christian Advent song is the Robbie Seay Band’s Heaven Come Done (Sing a Song of Hope).The lyrics exude confidence in God’s goodness, his love, his presence and the way Jesus enables new creation:

All things bright and beautiful You are
All things wise and wonderful You are
In my darkest night You brighten up the skies
A song will rise

I will sing a song of hope, sing along
God of heaven come down, heaven come down
Just to know that You are near is enough
God of heaven come down, heaven come down, yeah

All the things new, I can start again
Creator God, calling me Your friend
Sing praise, my soul to the Maker of the skies
A song will rise

I will sing a song of hope, sing along
God of heaven come down, heaven come down
Just to know that You are near is enough
God of heaven come down, heaven come down

Oh, sing a song of hope, sing along
God of heaven come down, heaven come down
Just to know You and be loved is enough
God of heaven come down, heaven come down

The song celebrates. Though the world is not what it should be, Jesus is coming. This is our song of hope. God of heaven come down.

Artist Credit: Fons Heijnsbroek, Hope, Acrylic, 1988, Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Waiting Begins Again

adventweek1It is the third day of Advent. This Sunday was one of the few Sundays I missed  attending church.  I wasn’t liturgically called into our season of waiting. Instead I spent my Sunday waiting in traffic and counting down miles of Interstate as my family and I made our trek home from seeing family and friends in Maryland.

Our time in the car wasn’t entirely profane. Sarah and I read our Advent devotionals and scripture out loud on our drive. It gave us a brief respite from the monotonous nature of modern travel, with its scenery cropped back and nothing left to look at except a steady stream of billboards and Cracker Barrels.  It was time out of time–time to reflect on what it means to wait for God’s coming. The gospels called us back to the story of Jesus the Incarnate One; the prophets reminded us of His final coming when all will be set right.

Yesterday  I went to my community garden plot and checked the progress there. A few seedlings pushed their way to the surface in my absence, spinach and pea plants poking through the earth. My other plants were healthy and growing. Other places I lived, my garden would be dormant right now (perhaps a woody kale plant hanging on through the frost). My metaphorical frame for the season has changed. Instead of leafless deciduous trees and frozen ground, I have a garden striving toward full potential–life and fruitfulness and world of green. In either case, the point is the same: all of creation groans, and we ourselves, the first fruits of the Spirit, as we eagerly await our full adoption a God’s children and the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).

There is a telos (a goal or end) for the story we find ourselves in. We all wait to see our destination on life’s road, to see our own gardens teeming. But this season is more than waiting for our arrival and full potentiality. It is about waiting for the coming of the Lord. Two thousand years ago God came near in Jesus Christ and changed the trajectory of human history. For now we wait. Christ has died, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again. 

There have been predictions of the end being nigh, false prophets spouting off the day and hour of Christ’s return.  Jesus is coming soon. Maybe. But with certainty I can say, “Jesus is coming sooner.” We don’t know with certainty when we will  reach home, when God breaks in, and creation reaches its end. We do know it is one day closer than yesterday. Jesus is coming sooner. 

To me this is the joy and invitation of Advent. We remember Jesus first coming and we remind ourselves to live like He is coming back, because He is.This mean care for those around us, nurturing of our relationships,  welcoming others into God’s hospitality and loving one another well.  Take some time to listen for creation’s groan as we long for Christ’s coming and our true home.

God there is so many things that drive us to distraction. Some them are seasonal: Christmas shopping, holiday traffic, the hustle and bustle. Some are personal:  family struggles, vocational crises, broken relationships,  hopes deferred and deep disappointments.  Some of them corporate: Injustice, War, Terror, Poverty, and Apathy for the Vulnerable. We cry, “how long O Lord?”  We remember your coming and we long for your coming again–your second Advent. When all sorrow and suffering will cease. Amen