It’s. Still. Christmas.

People of faith, we have a problem. It’s not that people say “Happy Holidays” (as a contraction of Holy and Days, ‘holidays’ actually reveres all of the sacred and special days in this season, from Solstice to Kwanzaa to Hanukkah to Christmas to Watch Night to New Year’s Day). It’s not that there’s a war on Christmas.

It’s that there are two Christmases.

One Christmas season starts on the day after Thanksgiving, maybe earlier. It features songs about snowy weather and Rudolph and Frosty and poems about Saint Nick. For it, people decorate in red and green, put up lighted trees and wreaths, and buy lots and lots and lots of gifts. It celebrates in its own way the spirit of generosity, the specialness, even sacredness, of giving and receiving, of being with the people you love in the midst of the cold. Santa reigns supreme on this Christmas, which arrives with tremendous fanfare on the morning of December 25, when households are filled with light and merriment and food and presents. And then the holiday ends. By December 26, the trees are down, the lights shut off, the music off the radio.

I celebrate this Christmas. I will not begrudge you if you do as well, whether or not you consider yourself Christian. It is a fun and good holiday, and teaches good values and practices joy.

But it’s not the only Christmas.

The other Christmas begins not after Thanksgiving, but after the season of Advent. It starts, like all good holidays in the tradition of its ancestral faith, at sundown– sundown on December 24. For this holiday, people decorate first in blue or purple for advent, but most primarily in white and gold. People sing songs about angels, shepherds, and a certain baby. They put up trees and wreaths and lights, yes, but also nativities and candles. This season arrives sometimes with great fanfare, sometimes with solemn prayer, sometimes at 5:30 or 7 pm, or 11 pm (which we somehow call “midnight”), and again on the morning of December 25. On this Christmas, the one who reigns supreme is a baby, born to set his people free. Jesus own this Christmas. It’s his birthday, and as such, it too embraces giving and family and joy, but it also teaches holy expectation, God’s promises, new birth, and the presence of Christ in the midst of the world’s ordinary brokenness.

This Christmas does not end on December 26.

From a theological perspective, this Christmas does not end at all, of course, but in this context, I am speaking purely seasonally, practically, decoration-ally. This Christmas, Jesus’ Christmas, lasts for twelve days (there’s a song about that somewhere), and ends on January 6 with the celebration of the Epiphany, or the feast of the Magi– traditionally a more appropriate time for giving– as the Wise Ones reveal the global significance of the baby Jesus and present gifts to him out of love and reverence.

I want to pry these two Christmases apart. The “secular” Christmas and the “sacred” Christmas (how I dislike that language!). The Santa Christmas and the Jesus Christmas. I think they should have two separate names. We could name the Jesus Christmas lots of things: Noel, Nativity, the Feast of Christ’s Birth. But I’m not willing to say that Santa can have the name Christmas. Good luck getting it back from him and his holiday, but it’s not his to keep. I mean, it’s got the other guy’s name in it, and the word for church service. Christ. Mass. Christmas. It’s kind of a word owned by the Christian tradition, even if the holiday no longer is.

So I don’t know what we call SantaTide, the Season of Giving, St. Nicholas Day. It’s a great holiday, and I celebrate it with joy and find it holy.

It’s just not the same holiday as Christmas, a holiday that I am still celebrating, with songs of Gloria and twinkling lights. I think we can celebrate both faithfully– those of us who choose to– and I think we can, in pulling them apart, offer up ways for people who dislike Santa’s bent toward consumerism or people who find the baby Jesus a myth from a faith not their own, a way to celebrate their holy day, their holiday, without having to buy into the other.

This is my new mission, as I enter a new year, but not yet a new season of the church (nope, not celebrating Epiphany on January 1 either, lectionary watchers!). How do we tease out St. Nicholas Day (like St. Patrick’s Day or St. Valentine’s Day–  once named for a saint, but now cultural holidays with their own metaphors and themes) from the Nativity of Christ? Come to think of it, how do we reverence the beauty in our cultural celebrations and our religious ones, in ways that allow each to be holy in its own way?

And don’t even get me started on the Easter Bunny. We’ve got a few weeks before that candy comes out at least, so I have some time to prepare.

Sermon: Light Bearers

“Light Bearers”

(Christmas Eve, 2011) In a brief reflection, we recall that the story of Christmas involves not passive receiving of God’s presence, but active response to it. Let’s get ready to share the light we’ve been given! (Luke 2:1-20).

Sermon: Mighty Bright

“Mighty Bright”

(December 18, 2011 – Fourth Sunday of Advent) Christ’s birth brings the light of joy to the world– but joy is not a surface-level happiness. True joy acknowledges the sorrow and pain of life and shines forth anyway, rising up out of our faith and courage. How can we bear the light of joy to one another this Christmas, allowing for the good and the bad of life to be held side by side? (Luke 1:46-55)

In the spirit of holy humor and play, I prefaced the sermon by showing this clip from YouTube.

(due to a recording glitch, the original sermon was lost, and this is an approximate reconstruction)

This is the third sermon in a four-part Advent series, “Light Bearers,” where we explore how we can bear the Light of Christ– the lights of grace, love, justice, and joy— to the world.

Advent Cheat Sheet

Last week, a person who is not a member of the Christian faith walked into my church office (see how I tried there to not make it sound like the start of an “A Priest, A Rabbi, and An Imam Walk Into a Bar” joke?).

Anyway, in he walked and seated himself in the chair across from mine, and asked: “Can you please explain what Advent is to someone who is not Christian? How is it different from Lent? Why do some churches decorate with purple and others– like yours– with blue?”

Given that he knows me pretty well, he also asked me to “keep it brief.” This, by the way, is a necessary caveat if one wishes for me to answer a theological and/or liturgical question and then have any time left for the rest of one’s day. It’s also a really good way to make me focus on what’s important in my answer. Probably my congregants should ask me to keep my sermons brief. Oh wait. They do.

So in any case, my brief answer went something like this:

First of all, I use blue because, while I do see many similarities between Lent and Advent, I want to communicate that they are very different seasons. The colors speak differently to me as well– purple in its richness communicates the majesty of God, while blue is a calming color that speaks to me of coldness and stillness, like a calm lake and the cold season. Ultimately, that’s a pretty aesthetic choice on the part of the pastor/church, as sound theological arguments can be made for either color. On to bigger things.

Like Lent (the six weeks before Easter), Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) is a time of preparation for a holy season in the church. However, at Easter time, it was traditional for people to join the church, and so the time leading up to it was a time of study, personal and communal reflection, and cleansing of sin so that one could participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus and enter into the body of the church (some folks go a bit overboard on the cleansing of sin bit, in my opinion). Christmas is not a typical time for people to join a church, and the time leading up to it does not have the same level of study and cleansing associated with it (I’ll say more about cleansing in a second). Both are seasons of anticipation; both are seasons of preparation. But one is a season where we are preparing for us to enter the story of what God is doing, and the other is a season when we prepare for God to enter into our story.

Advent is a time of preparation both for the celebration of the historical event of Jesus’ birth and entering into the world– whenever that birth took place, and no, we don’t all think it was on December 25 in the year 0000– and the preparation for the symbolic entry of Jesus into our lives in a spiritual sense now (depending on where an individual is at on their spiritual journey) and in some sort of second coming of Christ, about which people of Christian faith differ wildly in their interpretations.

Finally, Advent is about doing something different from the rest of the world. While everyone and everything around us pushes for more, more, more and faster, faster, faster, Advent is about less and about slowing down. In that sense it is a kind of cleansing time as well, but it’s a cleansing from distraction to realign priorities. It’s a cleansing that creates space (I suppose I could think about the cleansing of Lent in this way, but I usually don’t– and that’s probably a deeper theological and personal reflection than is warranted on an Advent Cheat Sheet). It teaches a discipline of waiting and patience, something our culture is not good at (and I’m definitely included in that!). We light one new candle a week. We open on little window on and advent calendar at a time. We eat one little chocolate a day, or defeat one level of Angry Birds at a time (never say that chocolate and video games can’t be spiritual…). Instead of having everything now, we practice what it means to slow down, wait, clean house, and focus, to prepare for something to come to us that changes us– and the world– for the better.

How would you describe this sacred time to someone from a different tradition or belief? How do you think I did?

Sermon: Light the Way

“Light the Way”

(Dec 11, 2011 – Third Sunday of Advent) Jesus gives us insight into a primary thrust of his ministry in his selection of Isaiah 61 as his opening salvo. Since his life and teaching center so much around justice, we proclaim that Christ is the light of justice coming into the world. How do we bear and share this light, which we so desperately seek? (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11)

This is the third sermon in a four-part Advent series, “Light Bearers,” where we explore how we can bear the Light of Christ– the lights of grace, love, justice, and joy— to the world.

Love, Personhood, and Abuse in Twilight

Reading this excellent reflection on the Twilight: Breaking Dawn 1 movie got me all riled up again about why I dislike Twilight, and since it wasn’t posted on this blog, I re-post for your reading enjoyment my August 2009 review of the Twilight series as compared with the Harry Potter series (medium-grade spoilers for both ensue).

Overall, I am hugely unimpressed with the Twilight saga, and baffled that it is so often compared to Harry Potter. This seems to me the way my parents were baffled when The New Kids on the Block were compared to the Beatles. Sensation-causing boy band? yes. Legend reshaping music for all time? not so much. Did Stephanie Meyer and her saga make a splash in the YA fantasy genre? yes. Was her work creative, well-written, or life-changing? no.

Say what you will, doubters, but JK Rowling created a world unlike any other, with talents and vocabulary– and sports even– unlike anything we’d ever imagined. Her characters, although she sold some of them short (like Snape, and Sirius and Remus), were multifaceted and identifiable. In her world, girls found role models in strong and heroic women– Hermione’s brilliance and courage which never made her unattractive, Ginny’s determination, Luna’s originality, Molly’s maternal force-of-nature, McGonagall’s wisdom, Tonks’– yeah, I dunno about her; I don’t really like Tonks (she’s a little– Bella– to me, plus, she stole her cousin’s man). Boys found role models, too, in Harry, of course, but also in the just-as-idolized cast of secondary male heroes: Ron’s loyalty which never–okay, once–wavered, Neville’s bravery that takes you by surprise at first, Remus and Sirius in their father-stand-in roles, Dumbledore’s brilliant and humorous mentoring, Snape’s redeemability that people somehow doubted, Fred and George’s humor and levity and loss of innocence.

Rowling’s message, ultimately, is in the triumph of love of friends and family and romance and the world around you, over the forces of evil and death, no matter how dire. She wrote of love that leads to sacrifice, redemption, and transformation, and she consistently taught that the heroes are not always the people we expect, not always the strong or the beautiful or the famous, but sometimes also the Nevilles and Lunas and Hagrids and Snapes of the world. Her message, when summed up and placed in the hands of children, is something like this: be yourself, because there is beauty and strength in that; follow your heart, love with all you’ve got, and you can overcome the horrible things that are sometimes part of this otherwise beautiful, magical world.

Stephanie Meyer also believes in the power of love. But she believes in love between two people, and only two people, and for all time two people. Everyone has to find their mate, their perfect pair, and then that sets everything right. In fact, this is so important, that she makes it literally impossible for any of the main characters to *not* be in love with someone. The Cullen family is not complete until Edward has his Bella, and Carlisle was willing to go to great lengths in his younger days to try to accomplish this. The werewolves not only fall in love, but *imprint* so totally that they are not *capable* of choice beyond that imprint. This is what Meyer thinks love is– not a choice, not an effort, not a journey. It is a moment when you imprint– really, are Bella and Edward any different than the werewolves in this?– when you see the object of your forever affection, and you are hooked. Object is a good word there. Stripping love of the choice, the work, the journey, also strips the individuals in love of their personhood. They are objects to each other. They do not grow, they do not change. They are frozen in time. They are crystalline, shatterproof, hard and flawless, like diamonds. They are to be admired, by one another, for eternity. This seems pointless to me. I don’t quite know what it is, but I don’t think it’s love.

In their perfection, they are interesting. Regular humans, you see, particularly the girl humans like Bella, are uninteresting. Bella has no redeeming qualities, no strength, no beauty, no confidence, no talent whatsoever in her mortal life. Only Edward sees value and beauty in her, mostly in the way she smells. She defines herself by the males around her: by Charlie, Jacob, and Edward, and toward the end of that existence, by the child she carries who is Edward’s. As an immortal, Bella is strong, beautiful, and possesses a talent that mystifies and impresses. She is also totally defined by her role as a wife and a mother. An object. This is so contrary to say, ordinary, shy little Neville, finding the courage to stand up to his friends in the first Harry Potter book, and to stand up to his enemies, most dramatically, by the fifth. That change in Neville is maturity, growth, something the young reader can aspire to. The change in Bella is wrought by Edward– by his presence as much as his venom– and either way, to me reinforces that she is weak and uninteresting until he comes into her life, that the strength she finds has nothing to do with her own self, but with the conditions and the creatures around her.

I read the Twilight books, as I read so many things, to see what all the fuss was about, and to see if I would recommend them to my child, and to my friends’ and congregants’ children. I don’t get the fuss, and don’t recommend the books because I don’t find them well-written or interesting. But that’s not the extent of my criticism. I recommend *not* reading the saga, because I think it teaches young women particularly (who are the target demographic) a negative message, ingrained in our culture, and in no need of reinforcement. I think it teaches that girls are dull, powerless, and without talent, that the only thing to which they can aspire is to be loved by a man (or more), and to be worthy of his affection and somehow hold on to him forever. It teaches that love finds its pinnacle in romantic love, which is about perfection and pairing off (at the climax of the last book, Bella observes people expressing love and farewell in the face of almost certain death. What does she see? couples kissing. even though there are friends and parents and siblings and children, the love that people cling to is *only* the romantic love). It teaches that while love may conquer the evils of the world, it also conquers you, stripping you of choice, of change, of self. Ultimately, then, love is not love, but another form of control, another way to define and be defined by the people around us, a thing to freeze in time rather than journey with. A far more demonic message, if you ask me, than any terror a horde of vampires could concoct.

Sermon: Where the Love-Light Gleams

“Where the Love-Light Gleams”

(December 4, 2011 – Second Sunday of Advent) We are in great need of love– of knowing we are loved and of giving love to others. At Trinity UMC, we do a pretty good job of sharing the light of love with our community through our hospitality and welcome and openness to all people, regardless of where they come from. How might we increase our love for others and let the Love of Christ shine in and through us? (Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, Isaiah 40:1-11)

This is the second sermon in a four-part Advent series, “Light Bearers,” where we explore how we can bear the Light of Christ– the lights of grace, love, justice, and joy— to the world.

Open Letter to Eat More Kale

I drew this picture. You can use it if you want. I’ve known local “t-shirt guy” and artist Bo Muller-Moore for a couple of years. Our daughters went to preschool together and are in the same grade (different classes) at school. Bo also volunteers as a driver for Meals on Wheels, which is a program that operates under the umbrella of the non-profit I chair, Just Basics, Inc. I’d have thought that Chick-fil-A’s objection to his trademark was a ridiculous thing anyway, but knowing Bo even the little bit that I do, it only serves to make me feel more self-righteously indignant (what’s that sound? Is it an apple falling near to this tree?).

Now there are lots of great ways to support Bo in his fight to protect his own intellectual property against the objection of a corporate giant, including buying his shirts or making a donation on his website, signing the petition, and passing his story along to everyone you know (sources: NECN, local station WCAX, Huffington Post, Yahoo finance, Public Broadcasting, MSNBC, Christian Science Monitor, Christian Post, and Anderson Cooper 360). But I thought I’d also help by giving him some suggestions for new ideas to silkscreen.

Dear Bo,

I’ve come up with a few more ideas for t-shirts. I think you should trademark them now:

  • Nobody calls me Chikin
  • I’m Pro-Bo!
  • CSA > C-f-A
  • Save a (genetically modified) chicken; eat more kale.
  • Confuse Anderson Cooper: eat more kale.
  • got kale?
  • I tried to shut down a humble, one-man company, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

I promise not to sue you for taking my ideas, but I’d like a free shirt out of the deal.

Keep up the fight, Bo; your community is beside you!


The images and text ideas contained in this post are intended as satire and to make a political statement. As parody, they are not meant to infringe on the trademark or copyright of any company, including but not limited to Chick-fil-A, Universal/Back to the Future, the Dairy Association, CNN/AC360, Big Idea/VeggieTales, or Eat More Kale.

Light a candle for healing

Today, World AIDS Day, I remember a friend, Steve, who lost his life to AIDS, and many more who I won’t name, but carry in my heart.

We seem to hear less and less about AIDS each year, and I don’t know if that’s because we are doing a better job preventing and treating HIV and AIDS or if we have become desensitized to this particular disease. I hope it is the former, but fear it might be the latter, or perhaps a combination of the two.

I also hear AIDS more often associated with African countries than with the American population, and am deeply troubled by the implications. Was AIDS a bigger deal when it was more likely to impact white Americans than when it ravages whole communities half a world away (with a darker skin color)– just as it was easier to ignore before it became “mainstream” and it was the “gay cancer”? Is it easier to talk about aid for Africa when we mean food and mosquito nets because AZT costs more and condoms are more controversial?

My prayer is for the vision and wisdom to eradicate AIDS, of course.

My prayer is for those who have been lost to AIDS, and all those who mourn them.

My prayer is for people living with (living with! living with!), not dying from disease, for courage and hope in the face of deep darkness.

And my prayer is for our world where all diseases must be seen as global diseases because our human family is so tightly interwoven, where we cannot and must not ignore the cries of sisters and brothers no matter how far away they are and no matter how difficult, embarrassing, or politically challenging it might be to hear answer their call for help.

Light of the World, heal us.


(you can contribute to the United Methodist Commission on Relief Global AIDS fund online. 100% of your donation goes to the specified need).