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Sunday, December 18, 2016


The Discreet Traveler has been traveling a lot and I thought I would write about that, or what's been brewing in my mind for the past month, ever since the latest disaster of populism rocked my international elitist world. I'm sure I'll have more to say about that in the New Year, but it's the fourth and last Sunday of Advent--the church season of preparing for Christ's birth. And I've been struggling to feel "Christmas-y," let alone handle my Christian faith, in the wake of what has been a terrible year for many people.

So I really didn't think I'd be writing about Christmas. I feel as useless as the rest of the world, wringing my hands about Syria, a genocide happening before our eyes. I feel out of my century: outraged about Russia, of all earthly powers. And if you don't connect those two outrages, as Rachel Spangler wrote, "you're doing it wrong." The clich├ęs about the Christmas story as a Middle Eastern family seeking refuge seem so obvious as to be not worth pointing out again this year. To whom would I be preaching? Would anyone get it this Christmas who didn’t care before?

But it was thinking about all this, in fact, that compelled me to write about Christmas. Because it has been brought home to me over the past few weeks how important my “Christian world view,” as my father puts it, is to me. For all the disgust I feel when I hear religion linked to some atrocity—and Lord, 2016 has seen so many—my faith is not so much a part of my life, as the light in which I see life.

The secularization of the Christmas season, acknowledging other faiths, not saying “Merry Christmas” and so forth is seen by many Americans as an attack on, or at least invalidating, Christianity. In my experience this is more true in places where Christmas and Christian imagery are overtly talked about in public. In England, where I currently live, “Christmas” is everywhere—no “Happy Holidays” to be heard—yet dig too deeply into the Christmas story and you are likely to embarrass people, or they to embarrass you. Sure, all the kids are in the nativity pageant, but really believe? That doesn’t matter. I get the impression that Christ is like a lesser Santa Claus, just another pleasant lie to tell children.

I say this not to criticize one country versus another. I say it because, from the Christian to the person most contemptuous of religion, many people are confused about the link between Christianity and those earthly powers we call nations. Put simply, there is none. There is serving Christ and there’s serving our country, and it’s clear which is supposed to be our priority.

This sounds understandably terrifying to many secularists, who fear theocracy. A Christian Taliban, superseding national values with the cross of Christ, would be as bad as an Islamic state imposing sharia.

But it wouldn’t be Christian. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “The Church that went along with Hitler was not the church. The Church was in the concentration camps.”[1] Christianity is unique among world religions in claiming that God came down to earth to live a human life. That is the Christmas story that makes people squirm when you press them about it. If our King is God, born in a stable, then that is the leader we are supposed to follow, whether or not it conflicts with our nation’s call. We hope it doesn’t, but when Jesus calls, Christians are supposed to follow him—even if his way leads to the cross.

Whether you are right or left of center politically, that can be uncomfortable. It’s all very well when the leadership in power seems to align with your values, but when you feel it threatens them instead, in what does patriotism lie? The Bible is clear that the kingdoms of the world are not ultimately very important, given that Christ is King. If you are wondering if there are any exceptions, just listen to this from Handel’s Messiah: “I will shake all nations[2]

Boy, is this awkward. We love our countries. Even to many Christians, the idea of serving God instead somehow seems wrong, and of course the whole thing sounds ridiculous if you don’t believe. But our faith is supposed to be folly to the world[3]. Because this is not our world.

Now, if you’ve ever read anything else I’ve written, you know I don’t think we should turn our brains off, or defy science. Faith is “the evidence of things unseen”[4]; it doesn’t replace all other evidence. What I am getting at is the awkwardness of being a Christian in a world that never has been Christian. How should we behave towards one another on earth, when our conviction is that we’re made for eternity?

The Gospel reports Jesus as saying that “the kingdom of God is within you.”[5] We aren’t just in the waiting room for eternal life. “If you take seriously the glorious promise that God created us all to live forever, then what we do here and now matters far more than if this life were all….It may be of ultimate import whether or not we give a thirsty child a cup of cool water, whether or not we feed the hungry stranger who comes to our door.”[6]

So the next time you hear about evangelical Christians, Christian identity, or just Christmas, try imagining what it would look like if Christians put into practice the way Jesus actually taught and behaved on earth. Think about it the next time you sing, or hear, this carol by Charles Wesley about why Christ came:

Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the newborn King!’”

[1] L'Engle, The Irrational Season, p. 94. One of my favorite books of all time
[2] Haggai 2
[3] See I Corinthians
[4] Hebrews 11:1
[5] Luke 17:21
[6] L'Engle, op. cit.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Amen and amen! A voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord!"