Thursday, December 14, 2006
Do we all have a home for Christmas?
Joan Gray, the moderator of my denomination, has written that “Christmas as it is generally practiced in our culture is an exercise in forgetting. From the week after Halloween until the stores close on December 24, the atmosphere around us is one of forgetting the unpleasant realities of life. We forget that credit card bills will have to be paid. We forget that everything we eat will show up on the scales. We forget that most people we know have many things, but we buy them more because it’s Christmas.”
She goes on to say that, “In order to induce this state of forgetfulness we eat too much, drink too much, spend too much, party too much. Christmas — as it is generally celebrated by our culture and by the overwhelming majority of Christians — must make angels weep.
“Christmas is about the transformation of our world into the world God wants it to be. It is about our transformation into the beloved community. It is about God’s selfless love poured out on a world desperately in need of a savior. Somebody please tell me what this has to do with parents fighting to purchase the latest toy fad?”
Those are thoughtful words, and Joan Gray gives us something to think about. But I am not one of those ministers who condemn his merchant friends for promoting their business interests each December! Lord knows, I remember how hard my daddy worked in his store leading up to Christmas. He would be there until late on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day was one of the only days in the year that he really had to rest.
Yes, I urge people to slip into their pews especially at this time of year, but if I worry about people losing the meaning of the season in material goods, I worry even more about our churches and our increasingly ‘corporate’ emphasis on budgets, building programs, and self-serving ministries — and that primarily benefit our own comfort rather than the wants and needs of others.
Recently I visited Washington, D.C. There in our nation’s capital I was struck and saddened by the number of homeless people I saw sleeping in the parks and on the sidewalks. As I left an elegant restaurant where I enjoyed a delicious (and very expensive) meal, I literally had to step over a homeless person who had bedded down for the night at the café’s front door. I thought to myself that something is desperately wrong when I am spending a large sum of money at Christmas on a sumptuous dinner for myself, when there are people, like poor Lazarus in the Bible, sleeping at the doorstep with nothing whatsoever to eat.
I could not help but notice that when one stands on 16th Street, directly in front of the main entrance to the White House, you can see numerous homeless people in the street. The church where I went to speak — New York Avenue Presbyterian — is a couple of blocks from the president’s mansion. I would say that when I took in the sight from the church up toward the White House, there were twenty or more homeless people in a direct view. The president can look out his window toward the church and see the same sight I saw.
Something is terribly wrong in America when this situation prevails in our nation’s capital. Here we are, the hope of the world and the richest nation on earth. What are visitors from other countries to think? What are visitors from our own part of the country to think? I know the problem of homelessness is complex, but some of us have so much and others nothing at all. In this season of giving, what are we to do?
It is all well and good to be spending billions of dollars each day to establish democracy in Iraq, but what of the poor among our own people? The saying is not in the Bible, but wording that is very close does occur there — namely, that “charity begins at home,” and I want to urge our national leaders and those who read these words to think more along those lines.
I went to Washington to make a historical presentation at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. It is the church where the famous minister Peter Marshall once preached — perhaps you remember the wonderful movie of his life that was filmed in the 1950s. It was a major influence on my own decision to enter the ministry. The church is celebrating its 200th anniversary, and I was asked to speak about the early history of American Presbyterians.
But this is not a church that is self-consumed in its own past. Instead, they use a consciousness of their past to stimulate their reach into the future. The great work of that church is its outreach to the poor and homeless of Washington. This church and others like it in downtown Washington are open all day every day ministering to the ‘down-and-out’ who throng our nation’s capital. Some of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol, many are mentally ill.
The New York Avenue church has food and a counseling service. They also provide clean rest rooms for homeless men and women to use. This latter provision seems like a very basic gesture, but you can imagine how much it would mean if you had no access to facilities of any kind. While I was at the church over three days, I saw how many came to use those washrooms, and noted how meticulously clean the church’s custodial staff kept the facilities.
Now that so many in our large cities have moved to the suburbs, the downtown churches have a hard time carrying out their ministries. But I noticed that almost all the worshipers were involved in very time-demanding ways in performing this outreach. Many of these people are highly-placed persons in their professions. But here was a church where actual service was so important, and where people were giving the greatest gift of all: their own, personal time and energy to help others in deep need.
It is often a thankless task, and at times can even be dangerous. But this congregation was not like so many others I know — arguing fruitlessly over abstract issues of theology or carrying on petty internal quarrels. They did not seem consumed with raising money, or enticing members away from their neighbor congregations down the street. They were just doing the hard, demanding work of everyday religion. The sort of thing which Jesus said is the only godliness that in the end is met with the words: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
So let us not make this Christmas “an exercise in forgetting.” For I think that He who said of Himself, that “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” would want us all at this Christmas to think of, pray for, and minister to, those persons — who, for whatever reason — are alone and cold at this season.
If we do, the true meaning of Bethlehem’s manger will surely dawn upon us like an angel’s song.
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