Your December 2018 HELPER

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Four Christmases

The holiday season is upon us. With it come the inevitable proclamations and expectations that people have for Christmas. Listening to people share their hopes, dreams, and fears for the season I found that there are really four very distinct Christmases that people engage with. You can put them in a quad chart that stretches from Internal to External as well as from Conciliatory to Confrontational:

The external confrontational Christmas is represented by the bumper sticker that demands to keep Christ in Christmas. When people feel threatened in their identity they tend to overemphasize symbols and words. The aggressive overtone of a Kulturkampf corresponds with the perceived threat to a “Christian America”. Christmas is a welcome season to “strike back”. This Christmas is a cultural idol that gets politicized a lot.

The external conciliatory Christmas is one that is manifested in soup kitchens and generous donations throughout the season. When people want to feel good about themselves, the holiday season gives permission and occasion to live that out. Soup kitchens and food banks are notoriously short on volunteers and donations during the summer. But during the holiday season they get swamped with both, making scheduling and storage a nightmare.

The internal conciliatory Christmas is all about home sweet home. It kicks off around Thanksgiving with decorations and food. The cold winter months are the bitter contrast that gets fended off by a home that is warmer and cozier than ever. In a world that is increasingly complex and unpredictable the warm fuzzies of this Christmas bring a sense of safety and security.

The internal confrontational Christmas happens when family members gather around holiday feasts. The expectation is for everybody to get along and behave for the holidays. But the truth of the matter is that there are reasons some people are not invited, stay away, or show up grudgingly. There is no magic in the air that fixes broken relationships without continuous effort.

Did you notice that I just described the entirety of the Christmas experience without mentioning the church or the birth of Christ? They are an afterthought for most people because we are so busy engaging with the four other Christmases. Christmas is the Mass that celebrates Christ. Christ-Mass is a worship service. That is all from a church perspective. You should try it this holiday season.

Thanksgiving is talking to God

Turkey Day is a happy day. But why do we cram so much family, food, and football into one intense celebration? – Because they represent important aspects of life. The Thanksgiving feast with all its traditions symbolizes life at its fullest. The turkey I’m about to eat is not just food but a symbol of the overall sustenance that God provides. Family and friends around the table are not just pleasant company but a representation of the heavenly feast when all God’s children will dine together in harmony. Football or shopping are typically little pleasures, but on Thanksgiving and Black Friday they get totally blown out of proportion – watching for 12 hours straight followed by shopping for 12 hours straight. Everything around Thanksgiving is bigger than life – the group assembled around the table, they don’t see each other most of the year but here they enact what harmony and closeness could look like. The Thanksgiving meal itself has an average of 4,500 calories – over two days worth of energy for the typical adult.

Family, food, and football are all awesome. But Thanksgiving is intended to be a day of prayer. People have always prayed out of gratefulness when they made it through tough times, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1) Now, praying is a habit that so often is limited to asking for stuff: health and wealth and all kinds of blessings. Thanksgiving is a reminder that prayers do not have to be on our own behalf but that we are free to pray for God’s sake. Jesus modeled that during the last supper, “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'” (Luke 22:19). Jesus’s last supper was in the context for a formal Seder. So when the text says “he had given thanks”, Jesus probably spoke these words over the bread:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ
and over the wine:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּפֶן
Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth / Who creates the fruit of the vine.

Even the most mundane Thanksgiving traditions put on public display what we owe God gratitude for: Sustenance, relationships and pleasures. Now saying thank you and blessing the King of the Universe puts responsibility on us as the ones performing those rituals: We are called to make sure that all God’s children have access to the blessings of healthy and plentiful nutrition, loving and caring relationships, and uplifting relaxation and fun. My prayer this Thanksgiving: “King of the Universe, thank you for the feast, the fun, as well as family and friends. Use us to bring these blessings to those who need them more – the hungry, the sad, the lonely. Amen.”

How family members care for each other

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“Bigger kids, bigger problems”, or so they say. When they were little a band-aid used to be enough to cure almost anything. But as life’s worries grow, parents become increasingly helpless. Independence increases and crises become more severe: health issues, loss of a job, relationship breakups. Young adults have a hard time giving and receiving help to and from their parents. It did not use to be so complicated, did it?

Oh, the good ol’ days. Things used to be so easy. The entire family would live together on one farm. Great-grandpa started it and every generation since has lived and worked there from cradle to grave. When little ones were born, grandparents were there to raise them, because their parents were too busy tending livestock and working the fields. Everybody was useful as long as they could. And that’s were things got tricky and weren’t so good anymore. When gout cripples old hands, when worn out knees couldn’t be replaced, grandpa and grandma were no longer productive, the farm didn’t need them anymore and more often than not they neglected them and let them fend for themselves, without proper nutrition, clothing, shelter. Those were the shortcomings that the ten commandments address when they implore God’s people, “Honor your father and your mother”. Young adults have always needed the reminder to keep feeding grandma and grandpa even though they can’t work anymore!

Fast forward a couple of thousand years: The enlightenment makes people aware of their individual personhood beyond the ties of family. The industrial revolution drives younger generations away from the farms into the factories. The family is no longer an economic necessity but it becomes an emotional bond. Family are not the people you live and work with but the people you care about. But what happens when someone gets hurt or loses their job? The family farm is no longer there to absorb family members when they fall. Now it is up to the individual to find their own resources. Jesus advises, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” In this day and age we are all on our own. Family can be a resource for those who have one that is somewhat functional but for the most part we have to create solutions for every single challenge ourselves. Ask, search, knock!

Your kids have to ask for help. You cannot give them help they are not equipped to receive. Jesus did not heal people on his own initiative, but he asked for permission, like physicians ask for informed consent. Jesus asked the sick man: “Do you want to be made well?” It would be so easy to jump to fixes when we see our kids hurting. But that may not help them. Ignatius of Loyola taught that life is full of consolation (“ups”) and desolation (“downs”). What may make you feel down may actually be a time of productive challenge and correction. What may give you pleasure and feel good may actually be denial or distraction. You don’t know what your kids are experiencing just because you see them cheerful or sad. But one thing is sure: God is at work in their life! Trust God and let your kids do their own asking, searching, and knocking.

Please note: St. John’s UCC will hold the congregational budget meeting during church on Sunday, December 2nd, 2018 at 10 am.

Veterans Day – Save a life, help a poor beggar, promote peace!

Why do we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11?
Last week I posed this question to a Bible Study group at Del Webb Sweetgrass. They did pretty well. They remembered that Veterans Day was initially called Armistice Day. Then it got a little more shaky: Was it to commemorate the ending of World War I or II? A slight majority got it right and settled for World War I.
– A great way to commemorate Veterans Day is to promote peace!

Why did the 1918 Armistice take effect on November 11?
Negotiating and drafting the Armistice took well over a month. So what made them decide to let it take effect on 11/11? This day is dedicated to Saint Martin, the patron saint of soldiers. Saint Martin was famous for using his sword for charity. Martin was a soldier in the army of the Roman Empire and he was stationed in Gaul (modern-day France). One day he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens, where he met a scantily clad beggar. He impulsively cut his military cloak in half to share with the man.
– A great way to commemorate Veterans Day is to promote charity!

So, Veterans Day is a day that remembers peace-making and charitable giving. In 2018 Veterans happens to fall on a Sunday. That will be a special weekend at St. John’s UCC. On Saturday, November 10th, 2018, Young and Old with self-made paper lanterns will follow Saint Martin on his horse through the neighborhood around St. John’s United Church of Christ. It all starts with the making of the paper lanterns at 6:00 pm. On Sunday, November 11th, at 10 am, the Rev. Mirjam Haas-Melchior will lead the worship service at St. John’s UCC where pictures of our veterans will be prominently displayed. I will be bringing my presentation on suicide prevention to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Needville that Sunday. So much is heard of veteran suicide, but it is really an epidemic that affects all our communities – including churches.
– Save a life, help a poor beggar, promote peace!