Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Christmas Carol...

I guess Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" as a money-maker. He knew it wasn't "high art," as so many of his other novels would be, but he figured it would be a popular "supermarket" seller. It was. And is. However, it lives today as a play and a raft of movie adaptations. My wife and I have made it a personal journey to see as many of these as we can. The other night, we watched a British musical version on Amazon Fire video that was simply awful. Bad music, bad acting, and production values that made the used car ads of the 1980s look like Spielberg. But watched it to the end we did; gluttons for punishment we are.

Up until this past Friday night (December 16), our favorite was the movie version with Patrick Stewart. Seeing Captain Jean Luc Picard as Ebenezer Scrooge was just too good to pass up. Last Friday, though, the St. Paul's senior high youth put on a little dinner theater as a fund raiser for their Summer mission trips, and the play was a short-script version of "A Christmas Carol." It was so thoroughly enjoyable! The teens did an absolutely amazing job of putting life to the timeless characters of Dickens fame, and the little stage in our large fellowship hall was alive with magic in terms of innovative sets, high-tech effects, and even the stealthy use of a trap door to put two of our darling little ones up under the flowing robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Videos selected to set the mood and connect the necessarily disjointed scenes (due to set and wardrobe changes) were projected on the screen above the proscenium. A talented and passionate young woman played the staring role of Scrooge, a brawny young man with a sly but winsome smile played Bob Cratchit, and a host of other teenagers with great heart and dancing eyes filled out the cast. At the end, the whole house (and it was a sell-out) sang Christmas hymns and carols together as our Associate Pastor played the piano. This was an event, friends! Every year I look for something that will knock me off of my staid, ho-hum "holiday" blahs into a fresh Spirit of Christmas. The St. Paul's senior high production of "A Christmas Carol"--and all of the fixings thereabout--did just that. In the aftermath of the show, our Director of Student Ministries told me that the teens had a blast, and that several of them came forth as saying that they have been bitten by the theater bug! (This is a significant development, since many of them attend huge high schools here in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, two of which have been rated in the top 20 in the nation; even highly talented youth can't "crack" the casts of their schools' Quad-A extravaganzas that compete annually for the Gene Kelly Awards.) We are all so proud of these kids, and of the "cast" of adults who work with them throughout the year, and especially with this year's successful production.

And, of "A Christmas Carol": Is there a better message, beyond the Gospel story of Jesus' birth, that speaks the universal Spirit of Christmas any better that Dickens' little cash-generating novella? I think not. There is a Scrooge afoot in society that often denies the existence of "the poor," and there is a bit of that Scrooge in each of us. We are often scrambling to make ends meet ourselves (and most of the time the "crisis" is more of our own doing, extending ourselves beyond our resources), so we miss the less fortunate around us. Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim get us in touch with that soft center that we have for the "underdog" or the suffering small ones. (Our time had its own "Tiny Tim" a few weeks ago when we all saw that photograph of the injured little boy sitting on a chair in an ambulance in Aleppo.) Those same three "Spirits" haunt us all this time of year, don't they? And finally, the redemption and transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge means there is hope for us all. Isn't this the Good News in a nutshell? Dickens was a muse, my friend. The message of "A Christmas Carol" didn't only emanate from his creative brain.

So, as we ready ourselves for a fresh dose of Christmas, the birth of our Savior, and the wonder of children and families gathering to exchange gifts and empty calories, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas (and Season's Greetings to my friends of other beloved faiths). And I close with Tiny Tim's timeless words, "God bless us, Every One!"

Friday, December 9, 2016

Waiting...

When I was much younger...much...waiting was a real downer. I hated waiting for anything.

Oh, there was one exception--my turn in the dentist's chair. I can vividly recall following my mother into the "waiting room" for my appointment. I had lots of appointments because they said I had "bad enamel." In fact, I had really good teeth that liked to chew stuff like lollipops, popsicles, penny candy, cookies, and anything else that could possibly react with saliva and a warm environment to produce bacteria that could erode teeth like hot water over a sugar cube. My dentist, a known sadist, had a waiting room that smelled like the clean room for an Atlas rocket, and 1950s furniture that today is worth thousands of "throw back" dollars. I thought it looked tacky. I still think it looks tacky. They called it "lime oak," I believe. In the "waiting room," a very soft music was playing from a service I think they used to call Muzak. It was designed to mask the sound of dentist drills and conversation initiated by obnoxious people on elevators. Why did they ever get rid of it? When's the last time you had a meaningful conversation on an elevator? Bring it back, O keepers of ambient sound, please! Back to Dr. McAndrews office...when the first iteration of waiting was up, a nice dental assistant dressed like Florence Nightingale opened the door to the inner sanctum and whispered, "Jeffrey, the doctor will see you now." Like a single lemming to the sea I walked, and had that little paper bib slung around my neck anticipating the immense drooling that went along with the inevitable meeting between Ritter and my teeth. And waiting iteration number two began. Dr. MeAndrews was a very nice man with hands the size of meat-hooks and arms that looked like "Return to the Planet of the Apes." He didn't use Novocain and while polite, had little tolerance for a fearful, writhing six-year-old. After the horror stopped, I was rewarded with a--you guessed it--lollipop, along with orders not to eat it for two hours. Waiting iteration number three thus began. At age 62, I am in therapy...

Now that this is out of the way, we can meander back to Planet Earth and 2016, where we're still waiting for Jesus. (Really, we're waiting for Christmas, but I had to say that "waiting for Jesus" stuff for my liturgically correct friends.) Even though the pace of the waiting for Christmas has advanced along with my age, I still don't like the waiting part. When I was a kid, I remember thinking, as the initial candle of Advent was lit, that if I could just run to the front of the sanctuary and light the other three candles right now, maybe Christmas would miraculously arrive. Never got to try it. So, we wait...

Facebook has given rise to the seasonal barrage of memes decrying "taking Christ out of Christmas" and saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." I really hate this harping, negative stuff.  (I was happy to see a new meme this year that reminded naysayers that "X-mas" comes from the ancient practice of using the Greek letter chi (X) to represent Christ such as it does in the Christian symbol chi-rho or "Christ the Victor" [it looks like a "P/X" when you see it]. It is not an "X".) First of all, you can't take Christ out of Christmas! Jesus won't let you. Anything joyful that happens to you during the Christmas season is brought to you by Christ. And if your recent bereavements are the harbinger of a "Blue Christmas," Christ will be with you through that, too. Just. Have. Fun. And. Enjoy. It! Everyone will be blessed, if you do this, including Jesus. Getting a blast out of the gifts, the decorations, the cookies, the food, the wine, the kids, the smiles, the laughter, even the tears--these things keep Christ in Christmas. They are tactile ways to believe and gut-level ways to worship the One who is out to save us all. Don't think too much--it ruins the "fa-la-la-la-las."

We're still waiting? I thought this blog entry was getting long enough that Christmas would be here. Oh, we are still waiting for the fullness of God's true shalom to break into our world. (Is that enough Advent theology for you liturgical watchdog friends of mine?) But this is a very different kind of waiting. It's more like waiting for the finished picture to appear while you are still painting it. This isn't a "buy it and hang it" Kingdom that is coming, nor is it a "paint by numbers" one. Each of us has been gifted with our own colors, brushes, and images to add to the picture. Go paint the Kingdom, people!!! Yes, we have to wait for the whole cyclorama to become visible, but it won't be unless we keep slathering some paint and making some strokes on this great canvas.

If I don't get too caught up in the season, I'll try to write more about what Christmas looks like when it gets here. For a lot of us, we really need a Jolly Old St. Nick to show up this year, as the world seems brimming with Grinches. But Hope...Peace...Love...Joy...are slicing away at the darkness as each of their candles are lit. Go to church, beloved. Greet, pray, sing, listen, and bow. You and Jesus will get a kick out of it. And another few lines of color and form will be added to the unfolding art of God's Realm...

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...