Friday, December 30, 2011

Missing Advent - In Defense of the Church Calendar

Just before Christmas I saw a video of a hip hop dance/rap group performing during a church service. Although they were extremely talented, it really bothered me. My first thought was "That's not how you observe Advent." Apart from the major observances such as Easter and Christmas, I found very few Evangebapticostal churches that followed a church calendar. The observance of Advent is one of the major reasons I returned to a more liturgical tradition. Christmas just never seemed the same without that focus, preparation, and contemplation. I genuinely missed Advent.

Perhaps the only thing as enjoyable as pleasant experiences is the anticipation of those experiences. That is what Advent is...a season of anticipation. It is a season of quiet contemplation. It is a time where you not only reflect on the darkness, but hope for the coming of a great light. It is a time of somber preparation. When I was living in the land of Evangelicals, the Christmas season seemed to be a time of constantly singing and proclaiming that a savior has come to Earth. Every week was "Jesus is here. Jesus is here. Jesus is here." In the liturgical Lutheran tradition, each week was "Keep looking. Keep hoping. Don't give up. Your savior will come. Just hold on a little longer." until finally it becomes "God has kept His promise."

Each week for the four weeks leading up to the Christmas celebration a candle is lit as you anticipate the coming of the Savior, each with its own specific meaning.

Week 1:  The Prophecy Candle or The Candle of Hope
This candle symbolizes our belief in a God who will keep His promises.

Week 2: The Bethlehem Candle or The Candle of Preparation
This candle reminds us to prepare ourselves to receive the gift God is about to give.

Week 3: The Shepherd Candle or The Candle of Joy
This candle represents the great joy of the angels who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds.

Week 4: The Angel Candle or The Candle of Love
This candle reminds us that God so loved the world that he sent his only son.

The 5th Candle (Christmas): The Christ Candle
The final candle obviously represents the fulfilled promise of the coming of Christ.

But overall, I think these sum up what the entire Christmas season is truly about: 
Hope, Preparation, Joy, Love, Christ.

More than just Advent, I feel the entire church calendar keeps a flow to worship that encourages honesty in our spiritual experiences. Let me try to explain what I mean.

Have you ever known that one person that always smiles and tries to say how great things are even when the strain and near twitching of the muscles in the corners of their mouth and the slight dullness in their eyes betrays them? If you've spent anytime in American Evangelical Culture, I'm willing to bet that you do. Far too many churches within that culture promote this idea of constant happiness, never being lonely, always feeling loved, not being depressed, and never feeling abandoned if you are truly following Christ. They leave very few options for those in their congregation that feel otherwise. If they accept such beliefs, the only conclusions they are left with are: a)  it is a failure of their own faith  b) they should never let on how they feel, but just keep up happy appearances until they are "right with God." or c) they obviously don't belong in the church.

Which if any of these is consistent with biblical teaching? If you said "none of the above," I would have to agree. I have this theory. (If you know me at all, you'll soon realize that my overly analytical way of thinking lends itself to the development of many theories.) What is the mood of nearly any given American Evangelical Culture Church on almost any Sunday of the year? One of constant emotional hype, whether in the form of upbeat overly sugarcoated praise songs, or slower songs that often result in tears of joy thinking of what God has done. The congregation always seems to be either waving their hands in air in exuberance or on their knees thanking God for all He's done.

Let me be absolutely clear that I don't think there is anything wrong with those types of experiences in and of themselves. What I do think is wrong, and where I feel this culture fosters a practice of dishonesty, is that these are virtually the ONLY widely accepted emotional expressions of worship. It becomes a one note song.

What the church calendar does is guide congregations through various seasons. Some are joyful, some are thankful, some are preparatory, some are somber, and some are quiet and reflective. Easter is another great example of this. Does it make a lot of sense to be singing about Jesus conquering death on Good Friday? Or would that time better be spent thinking of the distress and sorrow of his disciples at such a time and confronting the areas in our own lives where we wonder if God will actually keep His promises?

Just as life has a range of emotions an experiences, so does the practice of liturgical worship that follows the church calendar. I don't feel happy and like rejoicing all the time, but the liturgical year doesn't demand that of me. And as I read the Bible, I find many like minded souls writing of ALL their emotional experiences whether grateful, doubtful, joyful, sad, angry, or disappointed with God. So why have we accept worship that doesn't allow   encourage that same level of emotional honesty?

I think there are a lot more people than we may realize that are desperate to hear their church say "Keep looking. Keep hoping. Don't give up. Hold on just a little longer."  and to allow them to meet God not in the confines of the parameters they have set for Him, but in the midst of their raw and sometimes ugly emotions.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thinking Out Loud, Explaining my Absence, & Loving/Hating Christmas

I haven't posted anything here is months. It's not that I'm giving up on the endeavor. It's just that sometimes I hit this point where I wonder if I'm adding anything beneficial to the conversation. I guess that when I think of the American church culture and the manner in which it functions, it can often seem beyond repair. It is a labyrinth of fun house mirrors in which everything has been distorted for so long that no one seems to notice anymore.

This isn't about my lack of faith in Christianity. It's about my constant contemplation as to whether what has manifested itself as organized religion in the USA actually is Christianity. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this question is often one that occupies my mind. That very question was a major catalyst for the creation of this blog. I think the entire problem is magnified by the Christmas season.

I'm coming to terms with the fact that I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. I do certainly love the aesthetic of the season...lights reflecting off of fresh snow, the warm glow of candlelight, lush greenery and ornaments that trace family history. Theologically speaking, the core of this holiday is awe inspiring. I love the concept of reflecting on the idea that divinity can be wrapped within humanity, that out of great darkness a light can come, and that there was a moment when heaven and earth collided. Just stop and think about those things for a minute. Such ideas lead to beautiful quiet and peaceful contemplation indeed. The near futile, but beautiful experience of trying to prepare your heart to hold onto those concepts. It's one of the many reasons that Advent has always been one of my favorite seasons on the church calendar. But I look at everything around me and realize that the manner in which we celebrate does very little to reflect those ideas.

For far too many, this season is one of stress, fatigue, and picking petty fights over minor issues. (I've already told you how I feel about the "War on Christmas.") I hear people around me demanding that we "keep Christ in CHRISTmas," yet I can't help but wonder if he's ever really been part of what we're doing here. Outside of the focus on charity, I see very little of the gospel in the hustle and bustle that is passing me by. I keep searching for that beauty, finding mostly imitation, but I can't stop searching because I know it is here somewhere.

The more I think about what it would truly mean to celebrate the full implications of the Christmas story, the more I realize that we don't. I don't have a way to reconcile this. There is no conclusion to this post. But I would encourage you to withdraw from the chaos, take a moment for quiet contemplation, and consider these awe inspiring theological questions along with me.