Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A New Year’s Resolution

by Rev. Laura Barclay

This is the time of year when we frantically realize December is coming to a close and we haven’t yet made our resolutions for the coming year. Whether it’s joining a gym, losing five pounds, or eating better, we think this will be the year. According to research done by the professors at the University of Scranton and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, around 40-45% of adults in the United States make New Year’s resolutions. Only 46% of these resolutions are maintained six months later. My longest New Year’s resolution, to work out at a gym three times a week, lasted for eight months one year. Most likely, this was because I had fear motivating me to fit into a wedding dress.

What is it about us? We like fresh starts and new beginnings, a chance to get it right this time. It’s only natural. Perhaps instead of or in addition to the usual resolutions, we should resolve to listen to God in our lives. The more we spend time trying to discern where we see God in our lives and our communities, the better disciple we can be. If we spend a few times a week in silence for 15 minutes, perhaps we’ll begin to notice people and places we neglected before because of hectic routines and schedules. We might find our perspectives moving from stressful inward worrying to productive outward care and mindfulness.

Here are some possible questions to process as you pray or meditate, some of which we’ve discussed in my workplace as a guide for our ministry:
Where is God working in my life?
Do I know anyone that needs extra care?
How do I exhibit the love of Jesus in my daily life?
Where is God working in the community?
What are some concerns I’ve seen in my community?
What kind of community does God intend us to become?

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t make it through the New Year with your goal. That same study showed that those who do make resolutions are 10 times more likely to achieve their goals than those who do not. And though I don’t still go to the gym three times a week, I have drastically changed what I eat and stay more active than before. Hopefully, remembering this can help motivate me to spend more quiet time with God, even if I fall short of my goal. Have a blessed New Year, and may your resolutions be fruitful!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Lessons from a Toddler

by Rev. Laura Barclay
 We all have multiple titles and identities, but the one of which I’m the most proud is the role of “Aunt Laura.” My sister, Jeri, and brother-in-law, Hans, have been intentional about closing the 400-mile gap between us by sending photos and videos of my niece, Téa, on a weekly basis. In watching these videos, I’ve been fascinated by her sense of wonder at Christmas. The lights and sounds are affecting her as if she’s conscious of them for the first time. When I came home for Thanksgiving, I was eager to see what she said about each holiday.

As her mother and I were explaining Thanksgiving and Christmas, she understood that one of them was Jesus’ birthday. We kept working to distinguish the two and told her that we would start to celebrate Jesus’ arrival after Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving Day came, and Téa sat at the table, eating her food and looking from face to face. She got down from her chair after eating, ran around playing, and gave out hugs. Soon Téa laid down on the floor, crossed and elevated her legs, clasped her hands and looked up at the ceiling—an exercise she’s done since before she could walk that we’ve affectionately dubbed “baby yoga.” She seems to do this when she’s thinking or wants to relax. Téa looked at Jeri and asked, “Where Jesus? I thought we see him today. He come see me?” After a moment of “awwws” from the family, my sister explained that Jesus was always with her and loved her very much. She looked up at the ceiling, resuming her “baby yoga,” and thought for a minute. “He love me?” she asked. “Yes, Jesus loves you very much,” my sister replied. After a few more minutes in thought, Téa resumed her play time and commands of Uncle Ryan to “be a giant” and chase her. Before the week was out, we had built Téa her first fort and invented games she played for the first time as if they were magic.

This childlike wonder at the world, with its close by-product of hope, was infectious. As much as I am annoyed by many of the commercial aspects of Christmas, I’ve struggled to come to terms with it and stake a claim on the meaningful aspects of the holiday. As Christians, we must do this in order to honor the reason we celebrate. It may be as simple as finding a child to remind you to look for that star in the East as a sign of hope, rather than to be consumed with the bargains of Black Friday. That child might inspire you to look for the newborn that shall be called Emmanuel, God With Us, who will show us a new Way and let us know that we are truly the beloved of God. How is the hope for a new Way exhibited in your life? How will you let others know that they, too, are loved? May you have a blessed and hope-filled Christmas.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A New Kind of Christianity - A Review

by Dr. Larry Hovis

This book shares a similar title to McLaren's first big "hit", A New Kind of Christian. Since the publication of that book, he has written many others, with his more recent releases challenging traditional thought to greater and greater degrees. This book continues that trend. In the second half of the book, he tackles such challenging topics as homosexuality, eschatology and pluralism. But for perceptive readers, his most radical proposals come in the first half of his book, in which he questions our most basic assumptions about theology and the Bible.

Specifically, he suggests that the overarching storyline which has guided Christian thought since Augustine is not the only way to view Christianity. This storyline develops in six stages: perfection, fall, condemnation, and then choice: hell/damnation or salvation/heaven. He then shows that there is an alternative meta-narrative which, if followed, drastically alters conventional Christian thought. He also argues that Christians have traditionally read the Bible as a constitution, when it should be read as a community library.

I think many free and faithful Baptists will readily embrace McLaren's second point about the Bible, but will struggle a bit more with his first point about the overarching narrative by which we interpret the Christian story. While I'm still thinking through, arguing with, and pondering the meaning of this book (and by no means accept every word at face value), I am grateful to McLaren for his courage to show us what he believes is a "more excellent way" and for doing so with grace and humility."

As a follower of Jesus and a devoted student of the Bible for many decades, I certainly believe that in a unique and powerful way God breathes life into the Bible, and through it into the community of faith and its members, and into my soul. And I certainly believe that the biblical library has a unique role in the life of the community of faith, resourcing, challenging, and guiding the community of faith in ways that no other texts can. It is uniquely valuable to teach, reprove, correct, train and equip us for love and good works, as the apostle Paul says. It provides a kind of encouragement that is central and unique to the community of Christian faith (p. 83).

Larry Hovis is the Executive Coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. For more information on A New Kind of Christianity, click here.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Can Christians Reclaim Our Saint Nick?

by Jason Williams

Gift giving is one of the chief practices of Christmas in our culture and the principal gift giver is Santa Claus: a white-bearded, rotund ‘saint’ clad in red with a big sack of toys whisking around the earth on Christmas Eve to shoot down chimneys and deliver toys to children of all ages.

The figure of Santa Claus is traced back to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra during the fourth century. What we know about Saint Nicholas is limited and mostly from legend. He was a man of great compassion and concern for the poor. Tradition tells us that he inherited a large sum of money from his parents when they died while he was still young. He used this money to practice charity and help those in need. Beth Bevis relates the following legend:

A family in his community was desperate; the father had lost all of his money and had been unable to find husbands for his three daughters. The daughters were in danger of being given over to prostitution or another form of degradation when, one night, Nicholas appeared at their home. He tossed three bags of gold into the open window (or down the chimney, in some versions) – thereby saving them from a terrible fate.

Though a connection to our current practice of gift-giving is found within such a tale, we must question how gifts such as iPods, candy canes and legos faithfully reflect the practice of charity seen within the stories of Saint Nicholas. Surely Nicholas was not canonized because he gave dolls and toy trains to children who had their basic needs met!

Over the past 200 or more years, the faith and practice of Saint Nicholas has been co-opted. In the US, 17th century Dutch settlers first brought legends of Sinter Klaas (Klaas is the Dutch short-form of Nicholas), a red-vested bishop who brought them gifts on his feast day. Then Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy scholar, elaborated upon the Dutch tradition in his 1823 poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas). Liturgical vestments became the fur garments of an elfish peddler. Secret charity for the poor became expected toys for those affluent enough to purchase ‘kerchiefs and dream of sugar plums. The faithful practice of a sainted bishop became masked by rosy cheeks and tiny reindeer.

In 1863, Harper’s Magazine began to publish the first pictures of Santa Claus. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, illustrated the pictures based on Moore’s poem and through them created the popular image of Santa. But Nast’s illustrations were not merely pretty pictures. In an 1863 image, for example, Santa is robed in stars and stripes and offers a special gift: a dancing doll depicting Jefferson Davis hanging by a noose. Yes, Santa is pictured as lynching the President of the Confederacy. With this image, the man once associated with charity, which sustained the lives of the poor, had become political messenger and herald of victory for a nation at war.

In 1931, Coca-Cola used a human-sized version of the jolly old elf in a series of advertisements. Eight years later Montgomery Ward invented Rudolf and his shiny red nose. Santa Claus became associated with his famous Coco-Cola red suit and songs about magical creatures and fanciful toys for children who were good. I imagine daughters about to submit themselves to prostitution to feed and shelter their families would not fall on the “nice” list of the newly imaged Santa, bishop of Coca-Cola and saint of corporate America.

The Santa Claus of which we sing today is not the fourth century Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus is a cultural icon formed and shaped by salesmen, political cartoonists, and the poetry of the wealthy elite. As such, Santa Claus has more to do with consumerism, nationalism and sentimentalism than any kind of saintly life, most especially one centered on charity.

Can Christians reclaim our Saint Nick? Within our current practice of Santa Claus, I have little hope. But when our gift giving turns from toys and treats to charity and almsgiving for those whose basic needs go unmet, then perhaps invoking the name of Saint Nick will teach us all what it means to follow the Christ child born on Christmas day.

Jason Williams is a graduate of the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond and a member of Hyaets, an intentional Christian community in the heart of the Enderly Park neighborhood of Charlotte, NC. A verson of this article is taken from their Advent Guide, "Christmas Is Not...Advent in the Apophatic Tradition," which can be found on their website: http://www.hyaets.org/.