Holy Days are Here Again: Christmas Edition

 “In recent years the church itself has become the target of a good deal of criticism and, for many, has simply been dismissed as a meaningful player in contemporary culture. And yet, all the while, as we have seen, there is an increasingly urgent desire for images that capture something of the depth and beauty of life, for practices that can structure one’s life and spark affection. Religion has always been the custodian of such symbols, and they were the center of the church’s life from the beginning. Yet the sad fact is that few people turn to the church for such symbols today.”[1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously claimed that “the church is only the church when it exists for others.”[2] That means the things we do in and as a church are deeply motivated by the people outside of the church. This kind of talk sometimes devolves into a sense that we should warp all the things we do in support of our own spiritual walks and lives to accommodate a random, idealized person who is not yet interesting in living a Christian life. That’s the sort of thing that ends in worship services where we don’t talk about Jesus for fear of alienating someone not in the room. That is not what it means to be the church for others.

In order to be the church for others we must first be the Church. There must be something going on in our midst for the seeker to find. It is both considerate and constructive to consider often what others interested but uninitiated in our language and practices would take away from observing them. Do they extend the welcome of Christ? The Church talking about how best to minister to people where they’re at is one of the most Christ-like things we could be doing. The conversation about whether we do certain things or talk amongst ourselves in certain ways because they’re “churchy” or because they’re significant to us and to living out our faith should be ongoing. The best way to be sensitive to people who have not completely bought into our community’s vision of God, however, is not to make it blander and presumably more palatable, but rather to offer sacrificial hospitality, complete translucence, and the richest of fare to the best of our abilities.[3] People don’t go on spiritual quests looking for superficiality, but depth. It’s worth discussing what might make people think to include our church on their quest and what offputtingly shallow practices, attitudes, and lingo they might encounter here if they do.

Bigga Gonzalez with the mural he painted during worship for Advent 2010. Each week the sermon and music focused on a different character in the Christmas story and so did the painting. Photograph by Jenn Cavanaugh.

Bigga Gonzalez with the mural he painted during worship for Advent 2010. Each week the sermon and music focused on a different character in the Christmas story and so did the painting. Photograph by Jenn Cavanaugh.

We often talk like we expect people to just wander in off the street in search of a place to encounter God. Remarkably, that does happen almost every time we open our doors, but it’s more of a symptom of desperate spiritual starvation than an indicator that they’re ready to throw in their lot with us on this journey. Consider the kind of confidence and trust we’re asking of people: to lose themselves in the worship of God in the company of strangers. Perhaps some word-of-mouth or outward sign will mark it as a place that is safe and trustworthy enough to enter, but increasingly the church building itself is not a sufficient sign of such. It may be that the sights, sounds and actions of our worship, ministry and community, visible from street level, audible through the open doors and perceptible in our neighbors’ daily lives could serve as such signs. Even then – even if people wander in for the music or the art or the safety itself – there’s no guarantee you have drawn them into worship. On the other hand, the symbolic act of walking into a church may be for them a greater step toward acknowledging God as God than most of your regular attenders take on an average Sunday.

Holy days are prime opportunities to be church for the world. It seems that people who do not normally attend church feel freer to come by. They are also the best times to revisit, and occasionally reinvent, our most significant traditions. It honors and blesses visitors and regulars alike to take breaks from our regular programming to dive deep into the festivals of the Christian year. What if Christmas in the church were as cozy and low-key as the secular versions most of us remember fondly as the best Christmas ever, the one that restored our souls and fostered our sense of family?

Homemade Christmas

The holidays wreak havoc on schedules. The churchy modus operandi entails planning extra, elaborate, once-a-year activities and services with only a skeleton crew to run them. Under these conditions, most proposed new traditions happen exactly once. Here’s an idea for a new tradition that may be more significant for the community, but probably less work for any one person than anything else you’ve done for Christmases past.

Sometime before Thanksgiving recruit nine volunteers who know they will be in town for Christmas Eve. Try to include a good cross-section of the church: young and old, male and female, starving artists and software engineers, different ethnicities. Assign them each a passage of scripture for a traditional lessons and carols service . Let them each plan a “lesson and carol” movement with a talk or a reading or an interpreted work of art and a song or activity for the congregation to respond with. Make sure you have at least one musician at their disposal for the singing. They each need to have their plans in writing a week prior to Christmas Eve so you can be sure not everyone is planning to sing Away in a Manger. Nine people who may not normally have much of a voice in church will have just blessed your congregation and twice-a-year visitors and made them feel like family.

To file in the "not less work, but great fun" category: the Christmas Arts & Crafts Bazaar. In recent years we've taken a break from making it so sales focused and simply spent the day making art together.

To file in the “not less work, but great fun” category: the Christmas Arts & Crafts Bazaar. In recent years we’ve taken a break from making it so sales focused and simply spent the day making art together.


[1] William A. Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 220.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 1997, 1953:282 [Ethics]

[3] One of the most powerful forms of translucence is acknowledging the limit of our powers and abilities. Instead of presenting our efforts as the end-all-be-all, what if we offered them as offerings and articulated whenever asked our experience that there is more and greater than we can do or say? This allows us to work toward God’s will being done without limiting God in others’ minds.

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Lines that Make You Want to Color Outside: Toward a Creative Rule of Life

“Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is…. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watched over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center.”[1]

We do not need to learn to balance the creative life against the ordered life. For our own sakes and our communities’ we need to establish creative orders in our lives that foster creativity. We all need roomy and protected spaces in which to create. A rule of life graciously opens the door to these spaces in our lives and graciously denies entry to whatever comes around looking to squelch our work. A rule of life is traditionally designed around maintaining an orderly spiritual life, but our spiritual and creative lives are inseparable.[2] Spirituality “simply calls for connectedness… with God, with others, and with our inmost selves.”[3] Connecting to God, others, and ourselves undergirds and empowers the creative life.

Many of us suspect we are more creative than our lives really reflect because we don’t make the time to work. Many of us still need to figure out how we work and will need to experiment. We will all respond to unique rhythms; it’s something we each need to work out for ourselves and be willing adapt throughout our lives. Some need only a cup of coffee or a soundtrack, and stand back. Others will be more productive in 15 minutes of seated effort after a 45-minute walk than if they glued themselves to a desk for an hour. Some of us are so driven to work that the first key practice to add to improve the quality of our life and work would be to take a regular Sabbath from it. Structured and unstructured types alike may find establishing times for creative play motivating enough that running over the planned end time feels delightfully and productively transgressive.

For the truly schedule-resistant and tedium-phobic there are free-form ways to be more intentional about time and cultivate healthy creative and spiritual habits. At the beginning of the month identify three things you’d like to focus more on building into your life (see list below for ideas). Instead of trying to schedule each one of them into every day, identify some block of discretionary time that’s already built in to most days, even if it’s small – riding the bus, lunch, the half hour after the kids are in bed when you still have some energy or are more in need of it than ever. When that time arrives, choose the one you feel most like doing and do it. (You’ll need to carry whatever materials you’ll need for all three if you’re out of the house, so plan accordingly.) Keep a tally, if you’d like, of the days you chose each activity. At the end of the month you can see that you’ve made time and space for those things. If it was hard to do any of them during that time all month, pick a new time. If one discipline didn’t appeal to you enough to try it even once all month, pick a new discipline. You can make a new list each month or continue each activity until your tally hits 30; then it’s like you did it every day for a month – without ever once feeling like you had to!

Potential Creative Disciplines – Mix and Match:

Read a book more than one person has recommended to you

Take a class

Pray for someone else                         Write a letter

Fast from _____                          Start a poem or story

Read a Bible chapter 4 times                          Journal

Meditate                   Enjoy some silence

Listen                              Take pictures

Invite a friend over and clean the least welcoming space in your home to prepare for the visit

                         Call someone you used to be close to

Make something for someone

Plan a week of healthy meals and make a shopping list

Practice an instrument

Read a whole book of the Bible

Pray for everyone who walks by you

Calculate how much you spent today on things you don’t need and give that much to the next person that asks: fundraising letter, panhandler, tip jar, etc.

Draw

Read an in-depth article or book about a topic you wish you understood

Clean out a drawer, shelf, bag or surface that collects clutter at home or work

Institute a monthly open house

Memorize a Bible verse

Visit a gallery or museum

Ask God to remind you of someone you’ve wronged and teach you how to do right by them now. Get started on whatever it is.

Exercise to the glory of God

Go to bed eight hours before your alarm goes off

Walk someplace you’ve never walked before

Finish a project

Give God thanks for every good thing you can think of                               Study

Practice centering prayer

Identify a power struggle you can choose to lose

Take a friend out to celebrate or catch up

Start a conversation with a stranger

Take some time alone                          Ask someone for advice or forgiveness

Read a newspaper, magazine or journal prayerfully, taking time to stop and reflect

Perform a not-so-random act of kindness to meet a small need you’re aware of

Worship in a new or neglected medium: song, dance, paint, writing, etc.

For Ruth Barton, developing a Rule of Life “is ultimately what spiritual transformation is all about: choosing a way of life that opens us to the presence of God in the places of our being where our truest desires and deepest longings stir.”[4] Disciplines are simply doing the work necessary for transformation. Spiritual and creative disciplines are less about becoming more rigid in controlling our environments than about understanding and articulating the terms of the environments in and conditions under which we can relate to and co-create with God. Barton counsels establishment of a spiritual rhythm by identifying motivating desires and minimum spiritual requirements, asking “which spiritual practice and relationships have seemed to be most powerful in meeting the desires of my heart… as a way of offering myself to God steadily and consistently?”[5]

In establishing a rule of life, the potential for consistency trumps radical commitments. Our practices must be practicable. Instead of setting ourselves up for failure by vowing to do something daily that we only have time to do occasionally, why not start with an intentional commitment to do it two days a week and see if it becomes a valuable enough practice that we might make more time for it later? God doesn’t bully us into pursuits beyond our capacities, so why we would we attempt to do that to ourselves? Another consideration: if we’re trying something new in our lives, we need time to learn about how it functions in our lives, to develop a taste and appreciation for it, or even to set it aside as something that’s not helpful for us where we’re at right now. If I’ve never really seen prayer or painting as something integral to or fruitful in my life, there’s no way I can force myself to do it an hour a day cold turkey. If I’ve never read the Bible or serious literature on my own before, it’s going to take a while before I feel like I’m getting it. If I fall asleep every time I try to practice silence or meditate, maybe I need to work on ordering some other part of my life first and try again when I am well-rested.

“Our rhythm of spiritual practices also needs to be ruthlessly realistic in view of our stage of life…. One of the great temptations of the spiritual life is to believe that if I were in another season of life, I could be more spiritual. The truth is that spiritual formation takes place as we embrace the challenges and opportunities associated with each season of our life. … This is a place for learning how to be compassionate with ourselves, because God certainly is.”[6]

Marjorie Thompson reminds us that “realistic commitment is an expression of humility.”[7] It is honest, empowering, and faith-building to start small and realistic and expect big, knowing God is not disappointed in me if my daily lectio time is subsumed when one of my daughters locks herself in the bathroom or the other’s diaper fails fantastically. These are opportunities just as real and just as spiritual to grow in grace. Richard Foster calls this incarnational and sacramental living.

“We must recognize that the majority of Jesus’ life – and of ours – is found in our families and homes, in our work and play, among our neighbors and in our everyday surroundings. This tangible world is the place we most fully express the outflow of love, joy, peace, and all the fruit of the Spirit. Here and nowhere else. It was true for Jesus; it is true for us.”[8]

Remember, too, that any discipline or rule of life must involve some paring away and limits. It should not be another “to do” list piled on top of our already full lives, the added weight of which makes it impossible “to do” anything. If I’m going to post a thoughtful book review on my blog once a month, I’ll need to commit to reading that book instead of Facebook one night a week. If I determine to exercise in the morning, I need to get to bed earlier. Disciplines like giving and fasting work well in tandem, as do hospitality and simplicity, because the one makes space or frees resources for the other. These practices develop “a healthy sense of being able to say no to a good thing for the sake of a better or higher one; it gives self-confidence while enabling people to serve others.”[9]

 


[1] Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2002), xiii-xiv.

[2] Of course, creative people do not always examine their spirituality and many would not typify what they are doing as pouring out their soul or spirit, but the creators among us generally recognize that something deep within ourselves is involved when we create, even if we describe it in different terms.

[3] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 4.

[4] Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006), 13.

[5] Barton, 151.

[6] Barton, 149.

[7] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 143.

[8] Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), 20-21.

[9] Bradley P. Holt, Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 61.