Why I should have spoken up for LGBT rights in the church.

This week, some blog comments have been getting to me.

I have been reading too many comment sections on blogs, Facebook and too many tweets. In fact, this article about blog comments by Popular Science, and why they aren’t doing them anymore has been one of my most retweeted shares.

I have an internet rule:  “Don’t read the comments.” I regularly break it. But when you run your own blog, you have to moderate, even when random people get into arguments over things unrelated to your writing, like on this post.  However, this week I spent some time over at Micah J. Murray’s post, “Why I can’t love the sinner/hate the sin anymore.” and Rachel Held Evan’s post “When Evangelicals Support Phil Robertson.” The comments on those posts bother me too, but not because they are bad, but because they say out loud what I have not.

Image source -http://confessionsofadevoted.blogspot.ca
Image source -http://confessionsofadevoted.blogspot.ca

Until now, I have never really have said much publicly about my position on LGBT issues and rights in the church. Maybe it is time that I should. Maybe I should have a long time ago. Maybe I am partly bothered by my own sitting on the sidelines as brothers and sisters in Christ fight to be seen and heard as equals in the body.

It occurs to me, that I really have no reason to say nothing or to be afraid of saying something.

I live in a country where any two people can be married, regardless of gender, and it is has been the law of the land for nearly a decade.

I serve in a denomination that recognizes the diversity of human relationships, sexual orientations and gender identity. Since 2011 we have allowed anyone to be a candidate for ministry regardless of sexual orientation or gender, and pastors are permitted to marry according to the laws of province in which they serve (which means same-sex blessings are permissible).

These policies and social statement have been in place for nearly 3 years, and still I haven’t spoken up. 

And there are more reasons why I should speak up. I also understand the biblical witness full well. I know the scripture passages that refer to marriage, sex and homosexuality, and I understand their context. I understand the hermeneutical methods, the greek, the historical situation. I know that biblical marriage is a messy idea based in chattel contracts, polygamy and incest.

I know that Abraham married his half-sister and consistently gave her up, to Kings and their royal harems, to save his own skin. I know Tamar pretended to be a prostitute so that Judah would impregnate her, as was his duty. I know the only scandal was her pregnancy, not his paying for sex.

I know that in Mark, Jesus’ prohibition of divorce was for the protection for women, so they would not be cast off like damaged property at the whim of their husbands. I know that Matthew was uncomfortable with this and added the unchastity clause.

And I definitely know that homosexuality in the bible is even murkier. I know that homosexuality was more about conquering armies raping their enemies, about older Greek and Roman men “mentoring” young boys, about teaching foreigners a lesson or two for wandering too far from home. I know that sex in the bible is far more about power and pleasure, about the god-like power to create life, and not so much about love, respect and commitment.

I know that the bible has little to say about gender identities, sexual orientation and homosexuality as we understand then today. I know that the bible also has little to say about romantic love and marriage either.

I know all this stuff, I have two university degrees in it after all.

And yet I still haven’t spoken out in favour of LGBT rights in the church. 

I grew up in a congregation full of wonderful people that loved me and I them, but who made a point of “standing up for the biblical definition of marriage.” They left my denomination shortly after I became a pastor. It was messy, it was painful, it was ugly. I have lost colleagues and friends because they simply couldn’t go along with what our denomination was doing.

And I knew they were wrong. I knew my colleagues understood the hermeneutics enough to be okay with women’s ordination, which is the same hermeneutical step to understanding that the bible is talking about a different homosexuality than we mean today. You can’t accept one and not the other.

It made me angry that pastors were leading churches out of fellowship, and into sketchy situations with little denominational support. I ranted and complained to friends about these colleagues.

And still I didn’t speak out. 

In my first parish, as the decisions regarding same-sex blessing and LGBT candidates for ministry were coming to our national church, we discussed what it would mean for our congregation. My church council had the most beautiful discussion of the issue that I have ever witnessed.

They were a generations-old farming community. Salt of earth, practical, hard-working people. They started out the conversation saying things like,

“That’s not the way I grew up.”

“I am just not comfortable with it.”

“My parents and grandparents would not want to see two grooms in our church.”

“That’s not what our community believes in.”

But without any prompting from me, they worked through the issue out loud,

“We wouldn’t want strangers coming to get married here, but what if one of our kids or grandkids came? What would say to them?”

“Would we really tell some of our children that it is okay for them to marry here, but not all of them?”

And then, as I still sat and listened, they agreed,

“Well, when the time comes, we know we will have to change our minds.”

They didn’t know that they already had changed their hearts.

That was 3 years ago, and still I haven’t spoken up for LGBT rights in the church. 

And yes, all along the way I have had questions. Questions more to do with evolutionary biology, and with the deep brokenness, alienation, estrangement and distortion of this condition we call sin and the impact it has in our lives, including our very genetic and biological makeup.

But I know the question don’t really matter in real life, and especially not to God.

And so it is better late than never right?

Maybe now is the time to speak up. 

And maybe now is still the time because there are Phil Robertson’s, Mark Driscoll’s and dudes on Facebook making idiotic comments.

And maybe now is the time because I am an ordained pastor and theologian of the church who has been called to say things about people, about the gospel, about the bible, about God.

And maybe now is the time because in a few months, my wife will have our baby and I will be a father. I will be a father who wants my child to know that I love him or her no matter what, no matter who they are. I want my child to know that his or her father believes strongly that all people – regardless of sexual orientation or sexual identity, or race, or class, or gender – are loved by God.

I want my child to know that there is no sin too great for God to forgive, especially the sin of “being different” that human beings loudly condemn, but also the more quiet sins of being bigoted, or failing to speak up.

So let me speak put now:  I support LGBT rights and equality in the church.   

Have more to say on this issue? Share in the comments, on Twitter: @ParkerErik or on The Millennial Pastor Facebook Page

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Why Christians have lost the argument for faith before it started.

argumentsThis week, a blogger I respect, Tony Jones, wrote a post “Why Are You Still a Christian?” It was an open and honest piece about his personal struggles with doubt and faith. His basic assertion could be characterized as saying that he is a Christian because most people believe in God. Not the best argument in my mind.

He was also unfavourable towards Atheists. A prominent Atheist blogger then shared the post and the comments started filling on Tony Jones blog with arguments against faith.

Tony Jones tweeted that he was feeling a little beat up after it all.

A post like that, trying to give his reasons for his faith, was destined to fail in the face of “rational” scrutiny. But the point of the post wasn’t to give THE argument for God, it was to share what he is clinging to at the moment. However, the responses in the comment section cannot really be faulted either.

The problem is ‘Christendom’  and how Christendom’s argument for faith and for God has been playing out over the last several decades. Now, bear with me for a moment as I try to explain.

I heard Nadia Bolz-Weber last fall in Winnipeg, and one of my favourite “Nadiaisms” that she uses to describe her church, House for All Sinners and Saints is:

We are high commitment, low obligation.”

Theirs is a culture that allows people to participate in planning and leading as they are able, people can come and go as their interest and availability changes.

Sounds like great system, if you can work with change and chaos.

But the issue of obligation vs. commitment is one that has been rumbling about my brain for months, and I am starting to realize it is much more than a quaint idea for a little mission congregation.

Obligation vs. Commitment is at the heart of Christendom’s argument for faith.

Or more precisely, Christians have been trying to obligate society to observe, defend, practice, uphold, and respect Christianity. Then while society pushes back against being obligated in such a way. As a pastor, I get to hear the lament of failed obligation attempts pretty regularly. The lament is for a loss of privilege:

“They used to say the Lord’s prayer in schools, pastor!”

“Stores used to be closed on Sundays so people could come to church.”

“Kid’s play sports on Sunday mornings, and that is why our Sunday School is so small. It never used to be like that.”

“The cashier at (insert name) store said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.””

“People need to start coming to church to fill our pews and give offering! People should be here.”

“This is a Christian nation founded on Christian values.”

“They took the 10 Commandments down from the courthouse, what is the world coming to?”

I cringe when I hear these statements. I would be willing to bet they bother me as much any non-Christian. But they bother me for a different reason.

We have lost of the plot when we think that we can obligate belief or faith.

This is why Tony Jones, who did not set out for a debate, lost before he even began. Christendom got in the way of his point. Christendom has been trying to obligate faith for decades, and people who don’t want to be obligated anymore are rightfully protesting. It is pretty hard to make an argument for faith and for people not to hear the Christian attempt to obligate everyone to follow our religion.

But the bigger issue is for those of us who are Christians.

Is forcing everyone to say a Christian prayer in school or to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or to come to church because the rest of the world is closed on Sundays really a valid evangelism or discipleship method?

I think it is time for Christians to give up trying to reclaim the obligations of Christendom past.

I think it is time for Christians to say sorry to the world for trying to legislate our faith into their lives.

I think it is time for Christians to stop trying to argue people into believing in God. 

Even if there was some argument that could once and for all prove that God is real, and the Trinity is that God, and that everyone should believe… it would be the worst idea in the world to use it. What good is a Christian who has been forced to faith?

I actually don’t like it when people who think they should be there, come to my church. I don’t want people to come to church or be Christian for the sake of filling pews and saving souls.

I want people to want to come to church. To want to become Christians. To want to have a relationship with the Body of Christ.

I want people to feel like church is something they need, not something forced upon them. 

You know who makes my heart leap for joy at church? People who can’t imagine being anywhere else on Sunday mornings. People who choose church over the other options.

But we can’t all feel that way every week. Even the most devout Christian cannot want faith enough sufficiently every day, every week, every month.

And that is where I come back to Tony Jones’ post.

“Because everyone else is doing it,” is simply not a good reason for faith. Yet, I didn’t hear that in his post.

“Because on the days when I don’t have enough faith on my own, my brothers and sisters in Christ will have enough faith for me” is what I did hear. This is one of the most important theological, ecclesiological, liturgical reasons that I can imagine for why most of us are still Christians.

Because we are committed to each other, because we commit to share our faith and to share our doubt as a community, because everyone is else is doing faith WITH me. This is one of the most important reasons in the world.

Our desire to obligate people to faith is a desire to preserve Empire, but Christians, the Body of Christ, cannot be about Empire anymore.

The Body of Christ does not obligate you, me or anyone to faith. The Body of Christ commits you, me and all creation to God.

This idea changes everything. Wanting people to believe in God is one thing, but what if Christians strived to help people to want to have faith? We would be a different Church if we tried that.

Have Christians lost the argument for faith?  Is there a defense for faith that will help? Share in the comments or on twitter @ParkerErik or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/millennialpastor

Want more drama? Check out the high school drama of Evangelicalism.

Evangelical drama needs Mainline experience

high-schoolThese days, Evangelicalism makes me feel old. And tired.

The week that Phil Robertson was suspended, I was preparing for the funeral of a 16-month old girl killed in a car crash. The week he was re-instated, I was preparing for a funeral of man who took his own life, leaving 3 young children behind.

Throughout the last few months as a famous pastor was accused of plagiarism, as the Pope was called a marxist, as the issue of the role of women in Evangelicalism continued to rage, as the war on Christmas rolled into full force, it just made me tired.

I watched as progressive Evangelicals bemoaned the state of their tribe. As some called for schism, as others resolved to quit fighting about it, even others thought about leaving altogether,  and still others spoke thoughtfully into the cacophony that is Christian twitter, blogs, and media.

All Christians in North America, if they are paying attention, are forced to watch the Evangelical tribe as it rumbles and quakes about whatever is the issue of the day is. And I cannot help but see it all as some grandiose high school drama.

________

There is the usual cast of characters:

The Football Team (Mark Driscoll, John Piper, John Eldredge). The crowds love them, but most cannot see that they are also the bullies. They are pretty sure the football is only for boys, and the only sport for girls is cheerleading.

The Rich Kids (Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer). They are generally oblivious to the fact that there are other students at the high school. No one really likes them, but many want to be like them.

The Valedictorian (Rachel Held Evans). She is bright and well-liked, but constantly at odds with the football team for pointing out girls can play sports and the football team is getting too much money.

The Hipster School Newspaper Reporter (Micah J. Murray). He is interested in the truth and real stories. The football team can’t stand that he keeps writing about girls and the glee club.

The Debate Team (Zach Hoag, Tony Jones, Fred Clark, Benjamin Corey and others). They are passionate and articulate, and even agree about almost everything. But they often sound like they are fighting.

The Misunderstood Artist (David Hayward/Naked Pastor). Everyone loves his work, even if they don’t quite get it.

The Foreign Exchange Student (Sarah Bessey). Many love her, but the football team is suspicious because she has introduced this thing called “Jesus Feminism.” This new idea is causing quite the stir.

The Activist Club (The Junia Project). They are a group of passionate students, working to get their message out, and the football team is ignoring it at all costs.

(There are certainly more characters and roles than I have named here).

And there are us non-students. Those of us who are part of the story, non-Evangelical Christians, but not central figures.

There is Grandma (Roman Catholicism) and she has long been loved by the football team. Grandma used to knit scarves as Christmas presents for the team, but this year she decided that instead she was going to give goats and wells to poor people in their name and they didn’t like that at all. But the valedictorian, newspaper, activist club and debate team loved it.

And there is the star Substitute Teacher (Nadia Bolz-Weber), and the students think she is cool and hip, even members of the football team think she is badass. The students hear what she has to say as if it is fresh and new, but the same stuff the rest of the teachers have been saying for years.

(Again there are more characters than I can name.)

___________

So yes, I watch this drama and it is tiring, but there is no choice. As a young Lutheran pastor and a Mainline Christian, I know that many in my tribe feel the same, Evangelicals tire us out. They tire us out because we are the frazzled teachers and haggard parents to these high schoolers. We brought them into the world, and so we bear some responsibility for their drama. Yes, we can seem remarkably like their Grandma, but she and us had a big fight long before the high school students can remember, and we haven’t totally got past it yet. But as their parents and teachers, most of them find us uncool, irrelevant, wishy washy, out of fashion, and boring. There are a few who are starting to find us interesting and worth hearing out.

Still, Evangelicals need us. They need our experience, our wisdom, our calmness. They need our depth, our ability to see the grey areas of faith, our comfort with the tensions. They need us because we have been where they are going as they grow up. After our big fight with Grandma, we started fighting with each other, armies got involved, and people died. We have had our drama too.

And we need Evangelicals. We need their drama. We need their drama to remind us of how important this faith business, how important Jesus, is. Their drama reminds us of the passion we once had 500 years ago, of our own willingness to fight for every inch of the gospel. The high school might rumble and quake, and we will get tired of how loudly each mole hill gets argued over. But they keep us from getting apathetic, from getting too comfortable, and too familiar.

Hopefully, they will eventually come to see how they need us. Maybe they can stop looking for our flash when we offer rootedness. Maybe they will stop hoping for our strong declarations when we offer complex responses. Maybe they will stop seeking our innovation when we offer submission to the traditions of the faith community over time. Maybe they can stop wishing for big personalities from our pastors, when we offer professionalism and education.

Evangelicals, with their drama AND passion, need the Mainline.

Hopefully, we will accept that we need them. Maybe we can stop looking for their traditionalism, when they offer creativity. Maybe we can stop hoping for institutional cohesiveness for them, when they offer a grass roots touch. Maybe we can stop seeking them to honour what has “always been”, when they offer excitement for what is new. Maybe we can stop wishing their pastors will fit the mold, when they offer dynamic leadership. Mainliners, despite being tired AND experienced, need Evangelicalism.

In the meantime, despite myself, I will continue watching the high school, being exasperated by the drama and walking with my Evangelical brothers and sisters… because the Mainline needs them.

What do you think? Is Evangelicalism high school drama? Share in the comments or on twitter: @parkererik or on Facebook

Want more drama? Read: 12 Reasons Why Being a Male Pastor is Better

The Magic of Christmas is Gone – when a child dies

*Note: On December 16th, a 16th month old girl was killed in a car accident in our community. On December 21st, our congregation held the funeral. 

HolyInnocents-Atlanta-monkimage.php_Matthew 2:13–23

Today the magic is over. The real Holiday began on Boxing Day as thousands, even millions of people across Canada spent their time worshiping at the altars of Wal-Mart, Zellers, The Bay, Sears and more.

All that magic at Christmas, is as easily returned as a faulty watch or an unwanted pair of socks. Boxing Day, or Week, or whatever the tag line is, is a sobering reminder about how quickly the world forgets Christmas and moves on to more important things.

And the reality is, being out shopping seems a lot more normal than what we are doing here. In fact, we haven’t done anything in step with the rest of the world for quite a few weeks now.

All throughout December we decorated with blue instead of reds and green. We sang Advent hymns instead of Christmas carols. And on The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord, we listened and watched as Christ was born in hotel room and visited by rejoicing Shepherds in the middle of the night. On Christmas morning, we sat down at a different meal, not turkey and mashed potatoes, but bread and wine, body and blood.

And this past week, when all the newspaper flyers and radio stations were telling us that we should be at the stores to get the big deals, we are here. We are here, listening and watching as the Holy Family escapes from real danger, and as all the other children in Bethlehem are massacred. The magic of Christmas is gone indeed.

The story of the massacre of the Holy Innocents does not seem like an appropriate Christmas story. Or at least is isn’t a story that you can buy, wrap up and then return on boxing day. However, it does follow the real Christmas story right in step. Last Sunday, Joseph saved Mary by choosing not to stone her when he found out she was pregnant. During the week, the two traveled a long and rocky road to Bethlehem full of thieves and other perils only to then give birth in the place where animals are kept. And now, as the paranoid King Herod orders the murder of babies under the age of 2, Jesus, Mary and Joseph escape to Egypt. The drummer boy, and the reindeer, and a tree adorned with lights and tinsel are not, and never have been, a part of this story.

Side by side, Boxing week, and this scene in Jesus’ life show us a darker side of the holiday. They show us the side of greed and fear, sides of cruelty and despair. They suck all the Christmas magic out of us, and leave us empty once more. The Joy of Christmas was supposed to last a year, but it has barely stayed with us a few days.

The story of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, of all the toddlers and babies in Bethlehem,  is not an easy story to hear. It is especially poignant this year as we had to burry an infant in our community. Our hearts ache hearing about the death of children, we know, somewhere deep inside of us, that this is unbearably sad. There is no need to compare it to the tragedies of human history that have followed since King Herod gave the order. We know what the slaughter of children was like for that town of Bethlehem, because it has not stopped. Children die each day, all over the world, of hunger, war, disease and poverty. This is not just Bethlehem or Selkirk in grief and mourning, it is a whole world. A world now even more desperate for a Messiah. Jeremiah speaks of grief for us all:

A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

Jeremiah’s words first expressed the grief of his people, the mothers of Israel, as they wept for their children who had been taken away to exile in Babylon. Then people of Bethlehem would have know the book of Jeremiah, and the story of the exile. But now they carry new meaning as they are stamped again to the hearts of the mothers of Bethlehem. And we know the stories of exile and the story of the Holy Innocents, but this year they carry new meaning as they are stamped upon our hearts. Tragedy upon tragedy. Heartbreak upon Heartbreak.

The darkness, that the Messiah was supposed to shine light into, appears to have returned.

Yet….

Yet….

Yet… Jeremiah’s words do not go unheard. The weeping of Rachel and of all the mothers of Israel is not ignored. God speaks to this suffering. God speaks to the people that Jeremiah first wrote to, God speaks to the mothers of Bethlehem and God speaks to us, to all who know tragedy, pain and loss. We hear the words of Jeremiah applied to massacre of the Holy Innocents, and applied to our tragedy. But Jeremiah doesn’t end with tragedy. Matthew only quotes tragedy, but the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem would have know what follows in the book of Jeremiah. And today, we hear this promise again:

Thus says the Lord:

Keep your voice from weeping,

and your eyes from tears;

for there is a reward for your work,

says the Lord:

they shall come back from the land of the enemy;

17 there is hope for your future,

says the Lord:

your children shall come back to their own country.

17 there is hope for your future,

says the Lord:

   your children shall come back to their own country.

God has not forgotten the cries of his people, and God’s messiah, Christ has come into the world for a purpose.

The newborn Messiah does not “escape” to Egypt. Instead, the Messiah travels the path of his people. The Messiah goes down the roads that the Israelites have traveled, so that God knows their suffering.

Just as the nation of Israel fled from Pharaoh in the Exodus, so too will the Messiah follow their path to Egypt and then back to the promised land.

And just as the exiles of Jeremiah’s day returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, to the holy city, the Messiah is also on his way to Jerusalem.  Egypt and Babylon are just the beginning of the Messiah’s journey. Jesus the Messiah is preparing to take on all the suffering of his people.

As the Messiah escapes to Egypt it is really only a delay of King Herod’s order for death.  Make no mistake, the destination of Messiah, from the moment he was laid in the manger, and was worshipped by shepherds and magi, is the cross. Christ the Messiah has been on his to the land of the dead this whole time.

And surprisingly, this is the hope, this is the promise that the Lord speaks to the people of Israel. This is the promise that is beneath the star, that is born into the stable, that is a little baby in Mary’s arms. The promise that is not just a baby, but a baby who will die. But not just die, but who will rise again. But who will not just rise again, but who will bring us back from the land of the enemy, who will call us to rise from our graves too…

There will be a lot of Christmas promises that are returned and exchanged for something else this week. There will be a lot of greed and darkness, that quickly returns into the world after what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. And beyond our shopping malls and box stores, there will still be guns fired, hungry children, disaster, epidemic and suffering.

And it is in to this troubled world that God come to us… God comes to us as a baby shining light into our darkness and bringing the one Christmas promise that cannot be returned or exchanged.

17 there is hope for your future, 

says the Lord:

   your children shall come back to their own country.

Christ, the Baby Messiah, born in stable, sleeping in a stable manger, has come into our world, to bring us out of the land of the enemy. To pull us from the chaos of the shopping malls, from the despair of grief and loss, from tombs where we do not belong. And Christ shall bring us back to our home, back to the love God.

This is is the promise of Christ’s coming. This is the hope that the angels proclaimed. This is the Good News of great joy that was given to the Shepherds, and that has been passed on to us this day.

Amen

 

A Story for Christmas – Part 2

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Hall Xmas crop_0_0Marlena thought about how she had wound up here. She, her husband Jim,  and her kids, David and Lizzie, were waking up in a road-side motor inn. They had been snowed in the day before when a storm had hit. They had been driving across the wintery prairies, towards her parent’s house in the next province over. Her parents were getting older and no longer able to make the trip to them for Christmas, so Marlena decided to bring Christmas to her parents. This had caused undue stress. She had been working furiously hard ahead of time. Buying presents, baking goodies, she even had the groceries for Christmas dinner in the middle seat of the van, between her and the kids. Marlena was full of anxiety this Christmas. She wanted everything to be perfect, she wanted everyone to have a wonderful time. So far there had been more grumpy moods and fights than wonderful times.

Last night they had experienced something incredible. The hotel was full of stranded travellers, and Jim and Marlena invited a young couple, Jesse and Miriam, to share their room with them because there were no vacancy. Miriam had been very pregnant and went into labour. She gave birth in the middle of night, to a baby boy, Christopher. The EMTs, led by John Shepherd, had finally made it to the hotel, but baby and mom were fine and recovering well, so they stayed at the hotel instead of braving the snowy roads to the hospital. That had been last night.

By mid-morning, David and Lizzie, Marlena and Jim’s kids, were up and as restless as ever. They were fighting again, Jim was disengaged like he had been all month. The wonder and joy of last night, had faded only to be replaced by the frazzled feeling Marlena had been experiencing all month. She was snapping at her kids ageing they misbehaved, and she had threatened to take away Christmas 3 times this morning, because it was the only thing that got them to behave.

Marlena, Jim, David and Lizzie moped around the hotel all morning, and by lunch they found themselves in the dining rooms, grumpily waiting for the storm to end. As the other hotel guests waited out the storm, they began to congregate in the dinning room too. However, the kitchen staff had long gone home to spend Christmas with their families. There were several tired and hungry travellers munching on chocolate bars and soup crackers from the vending machine. Many kids were running around wild, while parents sat impatiently looking out the window, hoping the storm would let up.

It was when Marlena’s stomach began to growl, that she remembered she had brought groceries for their Christmas trip with her! Before she had really thought it through, she stood up and announced to the whole dinning room,

“I have groceries going to waste in my room. I am going to cook Christmas dinner, you are welcome to eat with us”.

Marlena was shocked with herself. The whole room had gone silent and all she was getting in return was shocked looks from the sullen crowd… after what felt like hours, but was only a few awkward seconds, a voice from the back of the room said, “I will help, I have some food with me too”. And then all of a sudden 8 more people volunteered and off they went to front desk to get permission to use the kitchen. The hotel clerk wasn’t sure about the idea at first, but realizing that he may have a riot of hungry snowed in travellers on his hands, he agreed to allow them use of the kitchen.

The group cooked and baked all afternoon, the hotel’s stranded guests changed from being a group of weary people, to a group with purpose. They were going to make something of this day now, and they were going to do it together.

In a few hours, the dinning room had been transformed into a grand dinning hall. All the tables had been moved into one big table with over 100 chairs. There was homemade wreaths on the walls, and even one of the front lobby shrubs had been made into a Christmas tree, complete with toilet roll angel on top.

The hotel guests were all gathered around the table. David and Lizzie were sitting with Jesse, Miriam and baby Christopher. They were mesmerized by the new born, and they hovered around Miriam wanting to get a closer peak, or to let the newborn baby grab at their fingers.  Jim was floating around the room with a huge grin on his face, he had taken on the role of head waiter and was directing his group of volunteers as to where to place each dish that came out of the kitchen. All around the table, people were laughing, some were singing Christmas carols, others were telling stories of Christmases past. Even the front desk clerk had joined the table and was right in to the celebration.

Finally when the table was covered in food and everyone was ready to eat, Marlena stood up to commence the meal. She thought about praying, but she wasn’t sure if everyone would appreciate that, so instead she made a short speech.

“You never know what to expect from life, all your plans for the holidays can be thrown out the window by a little snow. But at least we won’t starve tonight and at least we won’t be kept from celebrating Christmas. So without further ado, let us..”

“Excuse me” said a voice from somewhere in the crowd. “But where I come from, its customary to read from the Christmas Gospel on Christmas Eve, so if you would permit me”. It was a little old man, and he was wearing a black shirt with a little white square at the front of the collar. Marlena nodded absently and sat down.

It was an old priest who had spoken and he pulled a bible out of his coat pocket and began to read.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

As Marlena listened to the poetic words of the Christmas story as told by John, she looked around the room. As she looked at unfamiliar faces, young and old, singles, couples and families, the familiar words took on new meaning. This Christmas was far from perfect. There was a feast on the table, but it was hardly the traditional Christmas meal. It had almost every kind of food you could imagine from turkey to pizza to curry. Gathered around the table was a group of complete strangers, not the usual family. But there was a Christmas miracle baby, and his parents, there was an inn with no more rooms. There had been guardian angels protecting the travellers, and even an Shepherd come to see the new baby. Marlena could sense that this rag tag group, was together for something bigger than they could imagine. All of them were stuck in a hotel on the side of the road during the holidays. This Christmas was far from perfect, yet it had become something special.

As Marlena saw her kids happy for the first time in weeks, her husband smiling and engaging the world around him, she felt at peace. No… this Christmas was not the perfect one she had imagined and worked so hard for, but neither were they the perfect family, perfect people needed to make Christmas perfect. Christmas was about God becoming flesh and joining with the imperfect. As she scanned the intent faces also listening to the Christmas Gospel, she realized that it was for these imperfect people and it was for imperfect her, that Christ the Lord was born in a manger. And Christ was here in the flesh, in the faces of those sitting around the table with her, family, friends, but mostly strangers, young and old.

The old priest read the last verse of the Gospel reading,

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us”.

When he finished, Marlena, along with many others around the table couldn’t help but say:

Amen.

For Part 1, see here: A Story For Christmas – Part 1

A Story for Christmas – Part 1

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

snowed-inMarlena heard shouts from behind her. She looked in her rearview mirror to asses the situation. Her oldest, David, was reaching across the back seat to his sister Lizzie, threatening to wipe his snot in her hair. David was grinning devilishly while Lizzie screamed in terror. Marlena’s husband Jim was playing with the radio. It was Christmas Eve, and the family was on their was across provinces to Marlena’s parents for Christmas. Marlena had been prepping for weeks, wanting to bring the perfect Christmas to her parents, who could no longer come to them.

“Jim, can you get them to stop it?” snapped Marlena.

“Stop fighting you guys” said a disinterested Jim without looking up.

“Whatever” sighed Marlena to Jim.

“David, Lizzie if you don’t stop fighting right now, there will be no presents for Christmas”.

Marlena hated making that threat, but lately it seemed to be the only thing that got her kids to stop.

“But mom!!!! David…”

“Enough!” shouted Marlena. “If I hear another word, I will turn this car around and we will go back home with NO CHRISTMAS!”.

The kids were instantly silent.

Jim muttered under his breath, “Sounds good to me”.

All this work for the perfect Christmas, had made the family irritable, Marlena most of all. She wanted so much to have a good time with family, but December had been full of fights and stress. As the family continued to drive in silence, the storm came upon Marlena’s family very suddenly. The dull morning sky had all of a sudden turned white with falling snow. Marlena’s anxiety shifted from being about her fighting children, to simply making it to the next town.

At noon, they pulled in at a roadside hotel, there were already many cars there and the minivan barely made it through the snow to one of few remaining parking spots. They trudged into the lobby and waited to get a room. Jim did the booking while Marlena phoned her parents.

“We won’t make it for Christmas” Marlena nearly sobbed into the phone.

But her parents didn’t seem too upset. They had been invited to the neighbours and they wouldn’t be alone on Christmas Eve. Marlena was devastated… she had worked so hard and now none of that work mattered, Christmas was ruined for everyone.

Jim had managed to book the final room in the hotel… actually it was the executive suite, but he had gotten it for the same price as the other rooms. The hotel clerk was feeling in the Christmas spirit.

When they got to their room, the kids squealed with delight as they leapt onto the beds and started jumping. Jim and Marlena dropped their bags and went to unpack the rest of the van. As they made their way through the hotel lobby, their could hear the clerk telling someone that there were no more rooms. It was a young couple and they looked defeated… “Maybe you can make it to the next town” the clerk offered, trying to be helpful. Marlena knew they wouldn’t make it out of the parking lot. She approached the couple and offered to share their room. There were two beds and a pullout couch in the executive suite, it would be crowded but they could all fit. Jim was looking skeptical, but eventually he shrugged and went back out to the minivan. Marlena showed the couple to the room, and offered them a bed. They introduced themselves as Jesse and Miriam, They were so grateful and polite, while Marlena was embarrassed by her kids who hadn’t stopped jumping on the bed. The couple offered to pay for half the room, but Marlena refused their money.

“The hotel gave us the room for the price of a regular one”, she said. “Let this be our present to you”.

As Marlena, helped them with their things, Miriam took off her heavy parka to reveal that she was pregnant. Very pregnant.

“How far along are you?” Marlena asked.

“I am due next week,” Miriam answered.

The two families spent the afternoon settling into their room.

As the group scrounged for supper at the vending machines, since the hotel kitchen was closed, they sat in the lobby and chatted about their lives, while the kids bounced off the walls. Jesse was a contractor building houses, they had been living away from home, but they were on their way back to have the baby.

The snow had not let up, and the cars in the lot were covered in snow. Afternoon turned into Christmas Evening. Marlena was staring out the window thinking about the Christmas they should be having, when Miriam grabbed her large belly. Jesse looked over and said, “Must be those false labour contractions, no need to worry”.

But the contractions were real.

A few hours later, Miriam was in bed and in full labour, with Jesse at her side. Jim was on the phone with Emergency services who said they couldn’t get an ambulance out in the storm. Marlena was helping the couple as best she could. Eventually it became clear that the ambulance was not coming, and Miriam was going to have a baby in this hotel. They readied themselves as much as they could, then it was time.

“The Baby is going to come now”. Marlena said “One more push.”

Miriam gritted her teeth and Marlena got into position. With the last push, into Malena’s hands slithered a slimy and wailing bundle of legs and arms, hands and feet. Marlena gave the baby to Miriam, who was exhausted but so happy. Jesse looked stunned. Marlena brought some water and towels to clean and then swaddle the newborn.

“Christopher” Miriam said. “His name is Christopher”. Soon mother and baby were sleeping quietly in the bed.

Jim and Jesse waited in the lobby late into the night, David and Lizzie slept on the couches. Jesse couldn’t believe he was now a father. It was Jim who spied the headlights appearing in the white out. Three big 4x4s rolled up to the front door, trucks with skulls, and flames and hunting gear. Several men poured out of the trucks, they were loud and boisterous. They looked like bikers or hunters, wearing balaclavas and carrying tools. They came to streaming into lobby, they looked like a gang out for mischief.

Jesse moved to the door, Jim could see his body tense. Jim followed, worried there would be a brawl. But the group of men quieted down. One stepped froward,

“I am an EMT the volunteer fire department, we are here for the pregnant woman. My name is John Shepherd.”

Miriam was waiting at the door of her room with the baby, she was grateful for the EMTs and firefighters to check her and the baby over. When John Shepherd and his team did their work and left, Jesse came to Jim and Marlena,

“You have been like guardian angels to us. Thank you, you saved us”. He went to sit with Miriam, the two gazed at their Christmas baby.

Jim and Marlena stood nearby watching the young couple. Jim looked at his wife,

“A full motor inn, a baby born on Christmas, an EMT named Shepherd… this has been and incredible night. This is a special baby.”

Marlena looked at her husband, and she couldn’t help but think of Mary and Joseph. And angel who announced a pregnancy to an unmarried virgin and her fiancee. The promise of a baby who would change the world. A baby just like this one, who could not lift his own head, who could not survive unless his mother kept him warm with her body heat, who could not be fed unless it was his parents who gave him food, who could not be alive unless this unlikely couple worked to keep him so. The story of angels and shepherds had never seemed so real as it did tonight.

“Look at that beautiful child” Marlena whispered as she wrapped her arms around Jim.

And together as they looked at this little child, so new to world, wiggling and gurgling like newborns do, they saw skin and hair, ears, eyes and a nose. And yet as they looked longer, they saw something more, something so much more. As they looked into this child’s eyes they could see themselves, they could see everyone that they loved, they could see the whole world. In this little helpless child, they could see the divine, they could see a great passion for all creation, they could see God in flesh — Emmanuel. Looking at Jesse and Miriam, they could see Mary and Joseph, looking at Christopher, they could see Jesus. They saw the whole world differently than it was just a moment before. A world with God in it.

As the first wisps of light began to breach the horizon with the sunrise, the two families  watched this new light come into the world. As starlight and sunlight danced across the sky, they could almost hear voices singing in the sky,

“”Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!”

Amen. 

For Part 2, see here: A Story for Christmas – Part 2

Joseph and Mary shouldn’t have been parents

angel_appears_to_josephMatthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Sermon

It is the last Sunday of Advent, and we still have the blues of the season up, the Advent wreath still has one candle unlit. But the signs are showing up that Christmas is close. The trees are up. The church has been adorned with wreaths and lights. And, after weeks of hearing bible readings about the end of the world, or about John the Baptist, we get to finally hear about some central Christmas figures.

The experience of Christmas seems to come, with more and more pressure, each year. Often, many of us spend a month or more preparing for just a few hours of gift giving, a few meals with family and friends, a few days that are supposed to fill us with enough joy to last an entire year. We work very hard to make the Christmas experience perfect.

And so when we hear Joseph’s story today, the contrast he and Mary present does not match the ubiquitous manger scenes we see this time of year.

In fact, Joseph’s story is much more like all the other parts of life that we pretend don’t exist at Christmas time. The parts we don’t like or that we struggle with. The parts that are hard and frustrating, that are disappointing and painful.

Joseph isn’t the first boyfriend to find out that his girlfriend is having a baby, and Mary isn’t the first woman to find out that she is pregnant when she has no plans to be. And they will not be the last unmarried couple that will have to deal with this problem. This story is much more like real life than it is one of those Christmas movies. In fact, this story really is inconvenient for our Christmas image. Christmas should be about the cutest couple you have ever seen giving birth to most beautiful baby in the most suitable of barn stalls. It is not about poor unwed mothers, and potentially adulterous unplanned pregnancies.

And only to add to the disconnect between what we imagine Christmas to be and what Joseph’s story actually says, when Joseph finds out that Mary was pregnant, his options included stoning his wife, because she was like damaged property which must be destroyed. Another option to stay with Mary was not possible either. Joseph would either be known as the guy who got his wife pregnant before they married, or the guy whose son is not really his.

But Joseph did not choose to go that route, instead choose a more humane option. He would dismiss her quietly, which probably meant that Mary would be returned to her father, and hopefully he could get the father of Mary’s baby to pay her dowry and marry her if possible. If not, than Mary’s father would have the option to stoning Mary himself, selling her into slavery, selling her baby into slavery or if he was rich enough –which he probably wasn’t — pay for her upkeep for the rest of her life.

Not the sweet Christmas story we remember.

(Pause)

Nelly had volunteered to direct the Christmas pageant at St. David’s, or rather she was the only one who hadn’t immediately said no when asked by Father Angelo. Nelly was busy enough this Christmas, but she decided that if she was going to do it, she would do the pageant right and put forward her best effort.

On the day of the first practice, she only had half the number of people she hoped for. But she decided to make due.

To the men she gave the roles of shepherds and magi. The women would be the angels. The little kids would be the animals. But for Mary and Joseph she only had one option for each. There was gangly teenage boy named Josh who simply didn’t seem like a magi or shepherd and quiet teenage girl named Grace who was dressed like an emo goth punk. The two could not look more out of place and uncomfortable in a church.

“This will not do at all” Nelly told herself. “Maybe I can find a better looking Mary and Joseph before next week”. For that first day however, Nelly dressed up these two out of place teens, and put them next to the manger. Josh could hardly see his lines because his hair was in his eyes, and Grace’s black eyeliner was so distracting, that the angels and shepherds giggled and whispered with each other every time she spoke.

At the end of the practice, Nelly was determined that she was not going to let these unsuitable kids ruin her pageant.

(Pause)

In many ways, the story of Joseph that we hear today, unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we are told to buy each December. All the commercials and ads promise the perfect Christmas, and each year, the world opens up their wallets in the hopes that if we buy enough and work enough, this Christmas will be perfect.

But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about judgment and the threat of death.

(Pause)

After four weeks of practices, and lots of begging and hoping and nagging, Nelly just couldn’t get anyone else to be Mary and Joseph. Josh and Grace were going to have to be it.

The night of the pageant came, and all the cast was gathered together after the dress rehearsal. The pageant was as polished as it was going to get. The little kids were running around pretending to be the animals they were dressed as. The shepherds and Angels were drinking coffee. Josh and Grace were standing by themselves, looking a little lonely… lost even. Nelly was still frustrated about them, they read their lines woodenly, and never loud enough. And Grace refused to off her black eye liner, and Josh’s hair still covered his eyes.

It was soon showtime. Nelly announced that there was five minutes until curtain up. As Nelly stood up to go and check on the crowd, she glanced over at Josh and Grace. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Josh reached down and grabbed Grace’s hand just for a moment, he squeezed it once and let it go. Grace looked at him and smiled. They were in this together. Josh and Grace against the world.

Nelly almost dropped her stage notes. She began to realize, that Josh and Grace were just like the real Mary and Joseph. All they had was each other, they weren’t perfect, or well suited for the role they were to play in God’s mission in the world, but they were all that God needed to work miracles.

(Pause)

Our perfect version of Christmas has never existed. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to unmarried teens living in poverty. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah.

God does not wait for the perfect moment to begin the work of the incarnation, the work of taking on our flesh and becoming like us. God starts in the most unexpected of places, with the most unexpected of people. With Mary and Joseph, with Josh and Grace, with you and me.

The story of Joseph shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, and our perfect Christmas pageant visions, in favour of a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

For when Mary and Joseph get past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when they get past the possibility of death for adultery, they become guardians of God’s promise.

God’s promise that cannot be re-created no matter how much shopping or baking or decorating or cheesy Christmas movie watching we do. It is God’s promise given to imperfect people, to imperfect us.

A promise whose name is God with us — Emmanuel. A promise whose name is God Saves — Jesus.

Amen.

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An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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