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Friday, December 23, 2011

My Own Charlie Brown Christmas (Max Lucado's Got Nothing On Me!)

In the early 90s I was a youth pastor in a small town in West Texas (give it up Denver City!). Although I visited my family who lived in and around Dallas regularly, I was somewhat detached from them. However, my sister had just given birth to my first nephew, William (though I was told he was not named for me, they just liked the name) and since it was Christmas, and since I worked for the church, I was asked to perform William’s baptism in a private ceremony in her home with just family being invited. I was surprised, but deeply honored as well. I was also scared out of my wits. Standing in front of my family – some of whom were either indifferent or even a little hostile to Christianity and with whom I constantly felt unease with – was more than a little intimidating. Even more, I knew I was supposed to conduct the ceremony as well as share a very brief devotional.

So, in the days leading up to the ceremony, I spent most of my time trying to figure out what I was going to share. I was not getting anywhere until one night just a week away from the ceremony, which was right before Christmas. Although I was single and had been out of college only a couple of years, I had developed a few traditions at Christmas time. Each year I went to local gas station and bought the ugliest, most misshapen Christmas tree I could find. I got it each year for our Seekers program at the church, the fifth and sixth grade group who were preparing to enter into youth group. Setting it up and decorating it was part of the lesson – God can take what is ugly and make it beautiful. It was a Charlie Brown Christmas. But this particular year, I got by far the ugliest tree I could find. Even with the kids’ decorations, it did very little to make it presentable.

So, one of the other traditions I had, was once the Charlie Brown Christmas tree was decorated, I would sit in my house with all of the lights off except for the Christmas tree, listen to Christmas music, drink Egg Nog with my dog nestled in my lap (her name was Ozzie, named after Lee Harvey Oswald after I saw the film JFK and was convinced that Oswald did not act alone), and reflect on the previous year. But this year, even with Ozzie in my lap, the Christmas music playing, and holding a big glass of Egg Nog, I was distracted. The tree was truly ugly to look at and I could not stop thinking about what I was going to share at the ceremony the next week. I dreaded being at the event and wished I had never been asked.

So, as I sat on the couch I glanced over at the TV, no doubt strongly considering turning it on and forgetting my attempt at Christmas reflection. But when I looked at the TV I could see the reflection of the Christmas tree on the TV screen. Seeing the reflection meant that I could not see the limbs that stuck out so badly on one side or the gaps that riddled the body of the tree. All I could see were the lights that lined the tree; that started widely around the base and wound up to the awkward top. In seeing only the outline of the lights without the tree itself made the tree actually look quite beautiful. Looking at the outline of the tree in the reflection on my TV and then back to the tree itself, it was like looking at two different trees. The outline through the reflection on my TV hid all of the deep flaws and defects of the tree and made it look beautiful.

And then it dawned on me, I had my baptism devotional. What the reflection on the TV screen did for my ugly Charlie Brown Christmas tree, Jesus does for us. And what Jesus does for us is the promise of baptism for my nephew William. Though William was a perfect baby (and he really was), we could be assured that, like all of us, he would have flaws and defects over time. Scars from his own doing and from the doing of others (though certainly not from his Uncle!), would blemish the perfection of the little baby we saw and loved.

And so, like all of us, William would need Jesus to cover him. To heal the scars of the sins of others and of his own. And like looking at my ugly Charlie Brown Christmas tree through the reflection on my TV, so we too can rest assured that God looks upon us through covering love of Jesus. We go from ugly, flawed and defected beings, to being perfected by the love and grace of Jesus.

And so I praise God this Christmas for the gift of his son who became the Messiah and who has covered my sin, who has covered your sin. Through his love and grace, and only through his love and grace, we are truly beautiful.

Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Too Many Jesuses this Christmas

This week we celebrate the birth of the Christ, who came to us in the form of a defenseless baby. He was born, as we all know the story, in a barn for there was no room for them in the Inn. Jesus began his life homeless and as we see throughout much of the gospels, lived his life as a wandering rabbi. Although we don’t know specifically who showed compassion for the pregnant Mary and Joseph, it was their compassion that allowed them to have shelter for at least that night. Though Jesus came into the world to save it, he was dependent upon the compassion of others before his mission could ever begin.

Of course, the very reason why Mary and Joseph were forced to travel at this precarious time was due to the census mandated by Caesar Augustus. The reason for the census was for Rome to collect the taxes from their subjects. Caesar, of course, had no intention of sharing the revenues from what he collected with those most in need. His governance was solely for his own benefit.

In considering the historical context into which the homeless baby Jesus was born into, it is striking that last week on Capitol Hill some youth testified before Congress about their experiences with being homeless. Last week we found out that 1 in 2 people in the United States are classified as either poor or low-income. We also discovered that homelessness among youth in the United States has gone up 36%. In fact, the face of homelessness has been changing in the last 20+ years as children now represent 40% of the ever-increasing homeless population, which now stands at 3.5 million.

1 in 45 kids experiences homelessness, sometimes staying with friends or relatives, sometimes living in short-term shelters, or whatever form is convenient like someone’s car. It is unstable and creates tremendous amounts of stress on the family unit and on the children in particular. The stories in this news clip give just a taste of what these amazing kids are forced to endure every day.

The thing that strikes me, especially when reflecting on the passage of Jesus’ birth, is that this is an issue that clearly calls for individual compassion as well as corporate justice. This is an issue that can be addressed by people across the theological or political spectrums.

Knowing that 1 in 45 kids has experienced homelessness means that it is very likely that these children live in our neighborhoods, go to schools and church youth groups with our kids, and play on the same sports teams as our kids. With the increasing gentrification of our cities, entire areas of cities deemed as poor have often been broken up into pockets of poverty that have now spilled back out into the suburbs. Depending on the city of course, it is almost certain that many suburban areas are now host to these pockets of poverty and so it is equally certain, I believe, that homelessness is among us (and by “us” I primarily mean those of us living in suburbs surrounding cities). In addition, the gap between the rich and the poor only continues to widen as wealth is concentrated among a few and more and more people bear the burden of an economy that has been recessed for several years now. The result is that no longer is homelessness confined to the picture of an unkempt man with a long-beard standing on a street corner and holding a sign. Although largely invisible, homelessness looks like you and me.

Marti and I see it every day. We currently have a little boy staying with us whose mom doesn't drink or use drugs. She works full-time as a Teacher’s Assistant for minimum wage and then another 12-20 hours per week as a cashier at a grocery store. The father literally lives in a storage shed and is unemployed, unable to pay child support.

The county garnishes $300 each month from her school paycheck because in 2007 she was getting section 8 housing, her social worker quit, her new worker reviewed her chart after having the case for 11 months and discovered the previous worker forgot to make some updates to her case. Although it was the previous social worker’s fault, the mom was blamed for receiving too much in benefits for her housing and was given 30 days to vacate her apartment. At the time, they were just making it as a family and could have maintained that level of living standards. In addition to being kicked out, she was going to have to pay "back pay + interest" on the money she had received though it was clearly the fault of the social workers (the previous social worker who assigned her that much and the current social worker who took 11 months to find the error). At the same time, she was laid off from a full-time job that had provided enough pay for her family to barely live on.

So the system that is supposed to help the vulnerable led to her deeper into homelessness and did not offer her real assistance.

Since then, there have been further bureaucracies to wind through, more incompetence from people supposed to be helping her (though I want to say that most social workers are competent and extremely compassionate and deserve more than what they are paid), some not-so-great decisions on her part, and continued instability, especially for the children. The one thing that has been confirmed for us is that any distinction between “deserving” and “non-deserving” poor is a lie made up to keep us isolated and maintain our level of comfort. The truth is that we are all partly deserving and mostly undeserving.

We hope that stability is on the horizon, but for now, it is been a mix of an extremely long sleep-over for the youngest who is staying with us and an unending nightmare for the family as a whole.

The Church has a unique opportunity to manifest both individual mercy and prophetic justice. We can open our hearts to the homeless families living in our neighborhoods – and possibly attending our churches – and provide temporary shelter in our homes. Our eyes and ears can be more attentive to signs that people are experiencing homelessness.

We can also do justice as well. We can call our Representative and ask them to sponsor the Homeless Children and Youth Act which would change the definition of “homeless person” for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to include children as well. Requiring HUD to start counting homeless youth as part of their statistics on homelessness is important since HUD gives these numbers to Congress and this helps to determine how much funding goes to services, including housing, which will help children and families find their way into stable housing.

Although I do not work directly on these issues and others know far more than me, it looks like the government has approved funding for 2012 for programs for homelessness at 170 million. Though homelessness has increased significantly, these funding numbers are the same as last year. In other words, they are not nearly enough. This image of Congress not responding sufficiently is a stark contrast to when the Super Committee failed to come up with a budget and the response by many in Congress who pledged to stop the immediate cuts to defense spending (many of whom receive large sums in election donations from defense contractors).

Like the homeless Mary, Joseph and Jesus dependent on the compassion of others for shelter, so too are the homeless families in our neighborhoods, our schools, our faith communities dependent on you and me for compassion. Like Caesar collecting taxes for his own benefit and ignoring the welfare of the most vulnerable of his subjects, so too is the United States Congress intent on protecting themselves and their friends and ignoring the plight of the most vulnerable.

I hope this Christmas we reflect on God’s salvific gift to us through the Christ child both historically and even now in lives of homeless children all around us. I hope the Church will respond both individually, opening up our homes and churches to find at least temporary shelter for children and families. And I hope we will respond with justice, urging our congressional leaders to pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act now (and you can call right now, 202-224-3121).

There is much we can do, and I know there is much already being done. We celebrate this week the birth of the Christ, the Messiah of the world. We have only one Messiah, but we have far too many homeless children, far too many Jesuses in our midst this Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Excuse Me Bono if I Don't Applaud

December 1 was World AIDS day and to mark this important event and the ongoing struggle to eradicate this disease there was a large gathering of AIDS activists at the White House. The gathering brought together people from both sides of the political aisle and sounded a hopeful note for continued progress on this issue. An interesting quote describing who was there came from Bono of U2. What was interesting in his quote was the fact that he chose not to mention the presence of faith groups, but in particular, he spoke of evangelicals, as the wife of Purpose Driven Life author, Rick Warren, was in attendance.

I must admit that I was a little frustrated that the work of mainline denominations was once again shorted as it usually is by the media and so-called activist leaders. My colleague, Linda Bales Todd, and my boss, Jim Winkler, were both in attendance and Linda especially has done incredible work towards eliminating this disease. For the past several years Linda has organized a conference for United Methodists, Lighten the Burden, which has educated and mobilized United Methodists to actively educate their congregations and communities and to advocate for greater funding for research and protection in the United States and throughout the world.

Yet, for Bono, it was evangelicals who deserved special attention. Why is that? By calling special attention to the presence of evangelicals in his list he made a powerful statement: when it comes to caring for the most vulnerable in society evangelicals usually do not care. So, when they do show up to the table, it deserves media fanfare. In other words, by the media making such a big deal of their engagement on this or any issue means that evangelicals caring for the most vulnerable is the exception, not the rule.

The power of that statement becomes incredibly poignant when we look at Scriptures and see even a cursory reading of the Bible shows Jesus to be focused on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable he meets. The fact that evangelicals are not counted as usual suspects when it comes to caring for people who are marginalized and vulnerable simply means evangelicals are by and large not faithful to the numerous mandates in Scripture calling God’s followers to love and defend the poor and the needy.

I remember when Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church and the writer of the hugely popular book, Purpose Driven Life, first began to get involved in issues of poverty. Warren first arrived at Saddleback in 1979 and his initial engagement in social issues, from what I can remember, occurred in the late 90s. So, it took roughly 20 years between the exploding growth of Saddleback and Warren’s engagement in advocating for the most vulnerable. I know the important thing is that he is active now on issues like eradicating AIDS. Yes, I am thankful that he and some other evangelical leaders have shown up. Yet, since megachurches like Saddleback pride themselves on Scriptural fidelity I think it is fair to ask what exactly were they reading during those 20 years before their engagement in public witness? How did they miss the thousands of verses about poverty? How did they miss the pervasive themes in Scripture of providing hospitality to the sojourner and defending the cause of the most vulnerable?

Think of it this way. Let’s say I have been married for 20 years and during that time I cheat repeatedly on my wife. Then, suddenly, for whatever reason, I read of the importance of faithfulness to one’s spouse in Scripture and so I stop cheating. Should I expect to be invited to join a Presidential task force on marriage? Should I expect everyone to throw me a parade and for Bono and other media superstars to sing my praises because I now am taking my marriage vows seriously? No! Most folks would probably still think of me as slime and think of nominating my wife for sainthood, and rightly so!

Yet, we constantly make a big deal when evangelicals come out in support of issues like AIDS. Sorry if I don’t join in the parade for Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and all the other evangelicals who suddenly have come to the biblical understanding that injustice is something that needs to be addressed and advocated against. Excuse me for not getting too excited that they jump to the front of the media line simply because they have finally decided to obey the Scriptures they have been preaching from for 20 years. Sorry if among all the applause and slaps on the back you hear me asking, “Where the hell have you been?” When you are 5 hours late to a party, pardon me for not standing up and clapping when you enter the room. Some of us are too busy working because we have been here the whole time.