Cleanin’ Up Christmas

Recently, I began reading the book Christmas is not Your Birthday by Mike Slaughter, lead pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, as a part of an Advent small group series hosted by Impact Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The five-chapter book explores the idea of shifting the focus of Christmas from a me-me-me experience to one that gives-gives-gives to those who are in need. I could run the list of great points Pastor Slaughter presents about the commercialization of Christmas, but this blog is about something much more important.

The “cleaning up of Christmas,” or as Mike Slaughter puts it, “sanitizing” Christmas takes a look at our insatiable need to recreate the Christmas story into something it was not. This idea of sanitizing Christmas runs the gamut of images, new and old: there’s this peaceful, purified nativity scene, equipped with a modestly dressed Mary, an ever-loving Joseph, and a manger, though full of animals, cleaned, sterilized, and fit for a king. What the book suggests, however, is that there was nothing clean or neat about the birth of Christ.

Just think: Mary and Joseph had traveled for days to get to Bethlehem from Nazareth — no bathing, probably limited rest, and by the time they reached Bethlehem, Mary may have been in full-blown labor! (Have you ever seen a woman in labor? There’s nothing cute about that!)

We all know the story: there was no room in the inn for them to stay so they end up in a stable where animals lived. Animals, y’all. The hay that would eventually cushion Jesus’ manger (the trough from which livestock ate their food!) was the bed for sheep and goats, horses and donkeys. It was probably also their makeshift bathroom, too.

There was nothing clean or pretty about Jesus’ birth.

But we’ve spent centuries cleaning up this story to make it appear better than it really was. We’ve neatly tucked away the realities of the Christmas story, dressed it up, made it look and smell better because I mean honestly, who wants to worship a King born in the feces of barn animals? Who wants to admit that their savior found residence in the lowest of low places — a manger — surrounded by tired, weary parents who had spent days traveling to Bethlehem with nowhere to rest once they arrived?

So we clean it up! We dress Mary in her blue and white headdress, skin a-glow, hair perfectly coiffed. Joseph, in his humble attire, looks longingly at the baby resting in the feeding trough. We strategically place each lowly lamb and honorable horse at the feet of a pristine, babbling Messiah, pushing away the idea that someone who came to save the world in so much power and grandeur could be born in such a despicable and dishonorable way. And let us not forget the white-washing of the Christmas story; remember a few years ago when former FOX News commentator Megyn Kelly declared that Jesus was a white man, drudging up the age-old process of blotting out the color (read: melanin infused color) of the Jesus story. Not only have we had difficulty accepting Jesus as one who was born in the recesses of society, but we’ve also had a problem accepting Jesus, His parents, and the entire community from which he was born and lived as a people of color.

Mike Slaughter suggests that we read the Christmas story through a sanitized lens because we know what is going to happen in the end; This baby will grow up to become the Messiah, our Redeemer who spends the last three years of His life as a rabble-rouser. Because we often view Jesus from the other end of calvary, it becomes easy to retell His story in a way that is more aesthetically pleasing for us. It’s easy to make the ugliness of our stories appear beautiful when we are confident that the end will be favorable; but what happens to the story when you are not as sure?

From Mary and Joseph’s perspective, they were not sure how this birthing-the-Messiah thing would work out. The angel Gabriel brings this bazar message, and though both Mary and Joseph have some hesitation over it (depending on which of the Gospels you’re reading), they accept the Word of the Lord which results in them facing ridicule and shame for nine months. What a challenge of their faith! Remember: Mary and Joseph had not yet the privilege of knowing Jesus as risen savior as we do; their understanding of the birth of Jesus is not through the lens of Calvary. They were living in the moment! This experience, as I’ve suggested, was ugly, smelly, and quite oxymoronic considering the child being born would reign as king one day.

But, don’t we do this in our lives as well? Don’t we take the ugliest parts of ourselves and sanitize it, make it cleaner and more presentable to the public so that our story is better received? We shove down the shame, hide the hideous, remove the regretful to allow a more socially acceptable story to shine through — in hopes that those around us will accept us the way we’ve presented it. We dress up the lies, twist how the story really went so that those around us will feel better about their own stories of fear, shame, and doubt. We reframe the circumstances behind an unexpected pregnancy to appease these social pressures of single parenthood. We reshape the story to explain how a divorce shattered a seemingly picture-perfect family. We reconstruct the tale we tell about a sudden foreclosure on a sprawling mansion after keeping up with the Jones’ became just too much.

We are meticulous in repainting the picture to make it look presentable to the world. How useful could someone who has been rejected, broken, and born into a manger really be?

I think the Christmas story answers this lingering question — how useful can someone with a not-so-spectacular story be used to do great things? When we consider the realness of how Jesus was born, it allows for us to take a step back and consider the power of His birth. Jesus’ birth story was not one of pristine privilege or dressed up dramatics. It was of some young and in love folks agreeing to say “yes” to something beyond their understanding. It was a total commitment to follow through on their beliefs despite facing ridicule and having to birth their promise on top of hay full of animal crap. And despite all of those not-so-pleasurable things, Jesus’ story lives on in the annals of history. And ours will too.

What stories have you sanitized to make others (or even yourself) feel better about? This Christmas, consider removing the rose-tinted glasses from your story — share it! I’m challenging myself to be and remain transparent, to tell my story as-is, no cleaning it up. The Christmas story is much more than gift-giving and receiving — it is an opportunity for us to dig deeper into the realities of our story and use them to share the miracles in our own lives!

A Walk Toward Death

This week, we walked towards death.

We journeyed with Jesus as he said His final goodbyes to His closest friends and confidants. We traveled with the Messiah as He prepared to leave behind the life He once knew to say yes to the Divine.

What a week it must have been for Him, knowing that by Friday, He’d be hanging from a cross, His mother wailing at His feet, the hope of the world seemingly dashed.

He would spend all week walking towards His death. He would see those who loved Him the most betray and deny Him. He would ask his friends to pray for Him only for them to lose motivation in the eleventh hour. He would proclaim the truth as the Son of God only to be called a liar.

In His humanity, Jesus walked towards death – in His divinity, He walked towards a life eternal.

Walking towards death can be a frightening experience. It can call us to question the very relationships that once held us up, require us to press through pain when the weight of the world is upon our shoulders, and ask us to relinquish everything we thought to be true to walk into the unknown.

As we pick up our cross and follow Christ, we, too, will walk toward a proverbial death. Meeting us there will be both those who mourn for us and those who may accuse us. Waiting will be those who believe in God’s call on our lives and those who laugh at the idea that God could use someone like us.

But on the other side of Calvary lies the hope and expectancy of a new resurrected life. The redeeming power of Christ’s death and resurrection offers us the ability to face our  fears and anxieties head on; we are starkly reminded that because He walked towards death, even in fear and trembling, we can too. Rest assured we can believe that despite what pains us on this side of Calvary we will be redeemed from it all to live a full life with Christ.

As we take time to consider Jesus’ redeeming power during the solemnness of Holy Week, remember what is on the other side of death: the power to save, atone, and redeem.

The Preachers of L.A.: Cashing Out

Preachers of LA (from left to right) Jay Haizlip, Deitrick Haddon, Noel Jones, Wayne Cheney, Rev. Ron Gibson (Photo Credit: Oxygen Network)

The influx of reality TV spans every genre possible: single folks trying to find their soul mate; pageant kids turned Honey Boo Boo; people vying for the title of the most talented dancer, singer, or chef in the country and taking the prize after a million texts and phone calls to 1-800-vote-for-me.

There’s no part of life that reality TV has not touched and the church is no different. In a matter of a couple of years, we’ve been introduced to BET’s “Sunday Best” and “The Sheards,” TLC’s “The Sisterhood” (which, by the way, was not renewed for a second season), and most recently, the 2013 fall series premiere of “Preachers of L.A.” to be aired on the Oxygen Network.

The show follows the lives of six L.A.-based preachers: Bishop Ron Gibson, Bishop Clarence E. McClendon, Bishop Noel Jones, gospel singer/pastor Deitrick Haddon, Jay Haizlip, and Pastor Wayne Chaney, all of whom have multifaceted stories of faith, failures, and victories inside and outside the church. The series trailer features small vignettes of the clergy interacting with parishioners in church, ministering on the streets of Los Angeles, and even making appearances in nightclubs. The pastors can be seen standing next to brand-new Bentleys, Ferraris, and wearing custom suits while what sounds like an instrumental of Atlanta rapper Ca$h Out’s song “Cashin’ Out” plays in the background. Interesting.

While most of the pastors on the show have a checkered past (Don’t we all?), this piece focuses on a recurring message that has infiltrated the Gospel for the last thirty years: prosperity. The “Prosperity Gospel,” as many call it, focuses on the believer’s ability to gain and accumulate wealth through faith, prayer, and sowing “seed.” These “seeds” can be money, time, or resources, and Luke 6:38 serves as the ideal Scripture to support this idea of seed, time, and harvesting: “Give and it shall be given unto you; a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (NRSV).

In the trailer for the show, one of the pastors quotes a very familiar Scripture to support his flashy lifestyle, 3 John 2: “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul” (NRSV). Another pastor uses 1 Corinthians 9:11 to further the point: “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (NRSV). For safe measure, and to keep the Scripture in context, I will include verse 12 as well: “If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more?”

These two Scriptures have served as the support for ministries everywhere to validate their need for and, quite frankly, expectation of prosperity to be a part of the norm for the work they do in the body of Christ.

Now, let me get this out the way: I, for one, believe that those who WORK for a living should be paid. Being a pastor/minister/clergy is a full-time job for most. It requires a large number of hours spent away from your family studying, preparing messages, traveling, and handling the day-to-day operations of the church. Working in ministry is emotionally and physically taxing and, like many careers, has the potential for burnout.

Some will argue that it is God’s will for us to prosper in the sense that prosperity means an accumulation of wealth, buying things that depreciate and generally to hoard, hoard, hoard. But is that what God meant in the text from which we build our theological beliefs about wealth and prosperity? We will determine whether the Scriptures quoted in the show trailer actually were used in context.

First, 3 John 2: the letters from John (1, 2 and 3) were a series of letters from an elder of the church to the church at large or a specific leader in the church. In 3 John, Gaius is the recipient of the letter and is someone who was revered as a righteous man who took the idea of inclusivity and hospitality seriously. John notes:

“I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely how you walk in the truth. Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth” (NRSV).

The key verse before John praises Gaius’ work in the ministry is the one that many quote to support prosperity: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth” (KJV).

Why does John say that he hopes for Gaius to prosper and be in health above all other things? Was this an indication that Gaius should strive to acquire more material things, or find prosperity in the intangible?

In context, John is writing to a church that is working through power struggles within its walls. Later on in the text, we learn about a man named Diotrephes whose disruptive behavior, refusal to show hospitality to missionaries, and active expulsion of people from the church who are hospitable became problematic for them. The author also notes that Diotrephes “likes to put himself first” (v. 9) and acts out of his own selfish motivation, to the exclusion of the needs of others in the community.

When considering the first verse about prosperity in light of the entire Scripture, the author’s hope that Gaius will “prosper as his soul prospers” is much more than a Scripture about external prosperity. If the soul is the foundation of prosperity, then your external prosperity becomes a reflection of your internal character. The measure of one’s prosperity is about the soul (our mind, will, emotions) and not external things.

This, my friends, is the classic case of taking a Scripture out of context.

It happens again in 1 Corinthians 9:11 where a Scripture to support the prosperity gospel is taken out of context. Paul talks about how those who work in the church should be able to take advantage of the rights and privileges that come with preaching the Gospel—and rightfully so—but he then adds in verse 15: “Still, I want it made clear that I’ve never gotten anything out of this for myself, and that I’m not writing now to get something. I’d rather die than give anyone ammunition to discredit me or impugn my motives. If I proclaim the Message, it’s not to get something out of it for myself. I’m compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t!” (The Message Version).

He finalizes his understanding between the balance for rights as a minister of the Gospel and the good of the church by noting, “If this was my own idea of just another way to make a living, I’d expect some pay. But since it’s not my idea but something solemnly entrusted to me, why would I expect to get paid? So am I getting anything out of it? Yes, as a matter of fact: the pleasure of proclaiming the Message at no cost to you. You don’t even have to pay my expenses!” (The Message Version).

How do these two Scriptures placate the idea that the intention for the text to serve as support to line our pockets? In both Scriptures, the purpose of sowing and reaping was for a reason beyond the pastor/bishop/minister to live well—it was so the church as a whole would prosper! Prosperity, in context, had nothing to do with external accumulation, but internal understanding that community and the concern for community needs were of the most importance.

To bring things full circle, it seems that rapper Ca$h Out’s head-bobbing song “Cashin’ Out” is an appropriate song to shadow the Preachers of L.A. cast; it may have been the producer’s job to focus on the glitz and glam of Christendom, but the song’s lyrics give quite the textual support for the clergy’s prosperity message:

Got a condo on my wrist girl, I’m cashing out!

Got a condo around my neck girl, I’m cashing out!

My diamonds talk for me they say, “Hi, can I meet ya?”

It’s big pimping over here… I got big money visions

And I’m on da money mission, nobody can stop me

Just grab your camcorder, press record, and gone and watch me!

There’s much to be said about a body of believers who use their “diamonds” (read: prosperity) to speak for them in the midst of millions of people who suffer in poverty, even people in their own congregations. The “money mission” that this prosperity gospel puts us on causes us to lose focus of the intent and purpose of why God wants us to prosper in the first place: to better serve those who are without.

What good is it to prosper when those around you suffer? Go ahead and “cash out”; just be sure to spread the wealth to those in need once you do!

God, Justice and Our Use of Free Will

As the country waited to hear the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, there were a host of emotions present. Many were hopeful that justice would come quickly for 17 year old Trayvon Martin; we ended the night only to have our hopes dashed with a not guilty verdict.

I took some time to look at the response of many people while I waited for the verdict and even afterward. People around the country had a similar request: “let God’s will be done.”

There was a common theme that abounded throughout the night: the need for God’s “will to be done.” As hundreds of people tweeted and posted about wanting God’s will to be done with bated breath, hoping the verdict would offer solace to both the Martin family and supporters across the country, the collective disappointment was met with even more social commentary about how we will continue to wait for God’s will to be done and, as Psalm 94:1 suggests, allow God’s vengeance to do the work that the judicial system could not do.

I am not arguing any facts or failures about this case. The aforementioned introduction shines light on my personal views of the case, series of events, and desired outcome. I am, however, raising theological questions about God, justice, and our use of free will. I mean, how do we find/know God’s will anyway?

We could use algorithms and formulas to figure out God’s will…
Powerful scripture + past experiences / prophetic word from a televangelist = God’s will?
A biblical story + prayer x a seed of faith($) = God’s will?

Here are the hard, theological questions I have about praying for God’s will in the midst of waiting for and reacting to Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict:

Since the verdict was not in Trayvon’s favor, does this mean that God was not listening to the supplication of those who wanted a guilty verdict? Was God’s will to allow the Martin family to not see justice and face the devastating pain of having their son’s killer go free? Does God, in fact, will for George Zimmerman to be a free man? Does this mean that Zimmerman’s life was more valuable than Trayvon’s?

Can we definitively say that our prayers for God’s will to be done come with the presumption that God’s will is like our own? And when these things do not work in our favor, does it now mean that God is in opposition to us? More importantly, whose will is really at work in the earth?

Is it God’s or man’s?

God gave mankind the ability to choose. Many people call this “free will.” We are able to make our own decisions, one way or the other, with or without an understanding of God’s will for any given situation. I imagine that even when we are fully aware of what we think is God’s will for our lives, we still have the ability to choose otherwise.

Zimmerman made a choice on a cold, rainy February night in 2012. Some may argue that his actions were a part of “God’s will”–Zimmerman claims that the events of that night were all in God’s plan. Others would scoff at the idea. Nevertheless, it was his ablity to exercise his free will that took Trayvon’s life.

So what does this mean for God, justice, and our collective will?

I’m reminded of Marvin Gaye’s song, “I Want You” where he croons over a carefully orchestrated melodic tune with electric and bass guitars, bongos, and string instruments:

I want you / the right way / I want you / but I want you to want me, too.

During my time in seminary, I’ve learned that God can be quite narcissistic, conceited, and totally consumed with Himself. We see countless scriptures throughout the Old Testament where God’s desire for a monolithic worship experience with His people was of prime importance and this incessant need to be chosen by His people is how much of the biblical text plays itself out.

God wants us to want Him the way that He wants us. He wants us to choose Him, intentionally.

But I’m convinced that God knew that we would not always choose Him on purpose. This free will gets in the way of seeing how amazingly wonderful it is to love God, to choose to be in relationship with Him. Our sinful nature pushes against the very idea.

Because God knew we wouldn’t choose Him on our own, He sent Jesus to show us how serious He was about us choosing Him. I’m being a bit presumptuous, but I think God knew that we would not choose Him on our own — our fleshly nature wants to reject God and our minds follow suit in a proverbial rebellion against The Creator.

God sending Jesus was the ultimate example of divine leadership: a leader should not expect their followers to do anything they are not willing to do themselves.

So God gives the ultimate sacrifice (His son) to prove that though He was asking us to make a choice to choose him (something that we could not do through our mind/flesh), He first had to show us what it truly meant to not only sacrifice but to choose intentionally. Choosing had to be a HEART matter, it could not be an act of the flesh. God gave his son Jesus as a HEART sacrifice.

So, when we begin talking about God’s will versus our own, though we have the ability to choose any way we would like, when we consider that LOVE fueled God’s decisions to not only create us but sacrifice for us, we have a new lens to look at how we engage in the process of finding justice for those who have been wronged.

We will never be able to answer the question of what God’s will is — especially when it is juxtaposed against human free will. What we do know however, is the core essence of having any type of will at all, is that every choice is a heart matter — when we live and act in LOVE we don’t have to war with who’s will is at work — LOVE is what drives our decision making and communal interactions.