Christians say some corny things, and that corniness can seem a little cringe worthy—even to other Christians—sometimes. The words of our faith, when straightforwardly presented, can sound absolutely cheesy—even our best liturgy such as “the Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” I catch myself at the grocery store caught in this goodwill pattern. When the clerk says, “thank you, have a great day,” I will reply, “and also you!”
Perfectly legitimate words of ritual and Christian experience can sound painful out of context. The cheeziness of heartfelt Christianity when it bursts into the mundane world brings real world wincing. Take for example an overly loud public declaration of Christian concern, like “honey, that just makes me want to lay hands of you!” in the middle of a downtown Starbucks. You are going to get some wincing and some guffaws. This whinging stems from what we might call our ‘cornball coping mechanisms.’ All that goodwill coming directly and fearlessly at you is a tense thing in a public place. That tension must find release somewhere, and one of the ways we release that tension as a culture is in humor.
Cornball comedy is comedy that is so direct it makes you cringe, and then you have to laugh just so you can get the muscles in your cringed-up shoulders to release a little bit. Cornball comedy makes fun of us humans at our most vulnerable and in our most unsophisticated moments. We are awkward if well-meaning creatures, and ripe for a little ribbing. When the comedy is just right, it hits cult or meme status.
I can think of an example right now, the movie Blues Brothers. This is a movie where the very misguided lead characters try very hard to actually do the right thing for the first time in their lives. They have a clearly defined need: to learn how to be better people in the world. They have a clearly defined goal: to save an orphanage from foreclosure over debt. But, they have a very cornball understanding of God and goodness, which they articulate with cringe worthy hilarity and declarations such as the much memed “we are on a mission from God.” The words stick. They are simultaneously wondrous and horrifying.
It is helpful to remember as you shudder and moan that we all start somewhere. For the Blues Brothers, their befuddled and hackneyed path to redemption is really not that different than our own. All of us are forced to use phrases that sound too corny for life when we are trying to communicate the things on our hearts that matter. Phrases like “we are on a mission from God,” and “can you share the words on your heart right now?” and “let’s all sing and love each other” are an example. That last sentence is one I heard a child say, and even as I giggle at the plain-speak of children (so cute and so corny!) I realize, too, that God asks us to open ourselves to just this kind of innocent trust and simplicity if we really want to heal our lives and change the world.
If the words are clumsy, the truth is made plain. Christians are a missional people. We are on a mission to make the world a better place. We work to feed children, care for the disabled, and develop social systems from the grandest to the lowest levels to make this world a better place for all. We are clumsy, we are inexperienced, and we are drawn forward into mission by the call we feel within us. We get the sense that there really is, truly and deeply, something more to our chaotic rascally lives than punching time clocks, frequenting happy hour, and hitting snooze for five more minutes. We, each of us, have something real to offer. We, each of us, bring gifts that are vital to the work. And we, each of us—and more importantly all of us together—are indeed (groans notwithstanding) on a mission for God.
And think of it this way, if it helps, that there is a reason the secular world has appropriated the language of faith for its own uses. It is precisely because these words and actions and phrases hold power that they become, even out of context, a means though which the larger conversation finds itself socially engaged. It’s a start. We as a Christian people by no means have to leave it there.
As we work together on embracing Christian faith in the midst of an evermore secular world, we probably need to get comfortable with being cheezy now and then. We probably need to give ourselves permission to be clumsy and sometimes feel a little awkward and out of place. It is simply the truth that we do not to know the path ahead. We do not even know if we will be one of the next wave to truly cross the threshold into something new, or if we will be among the ones who will wave that next wave onward into places we ourselves will never see. But in either case it is not the end that matters but the beginning. We are called to a new beginning, a renewed vision, and a next-chance to make a difference. Our earnest simplicity and our willingness to risk a little cornball will be essential to the task.
This video came across my facebook feed and, wow, what a clip. First, I love the ferocious courage of Stephen Fry. He knows himself. He’s smart, and snarky, and often right on point, and I love that about him.
He has also experienced his share of unfairness and looked theodicy (the question of evil) in the eye. And even uses the theological word for questioning evil, which means he has made direct inquiry, right into the heart of of it where all the answers are supposed to be. ‘Theodicy’ isn’t a word you generally hear outside of seminary—and then maybe only for a class or two. To know this word is to have asked the really big questions.
Stephen Fry and I, we ask the same questions—but we answer them differently.
I think we should never back away from demanding to know why there is evil in the world and asking, as well, how we are called to respond to it, and what we are called to do about it. I am not smart enough to have it all figured out, I am not that powerful or great. I trust instead to humility in the face of power greater than my own, be it God or a swarm of ravenous insects. I believe despite our make-no-sense world that we can in fact be a force for serving what is good. Is there capricious suffering in the world? You bet. But I will not serve it.
Why is there suffering? I do not know. But I will stand here with you and I will abide through the pain and injustice, and I will never let go of love and I will declare God good.
I am hurt
and I am angry about that.
I cannot be honest
and vulnerable about my hurt
or you will just hurt me again—
I long for something better, but
my hurt makes me hate you.
And I have been hurting for too long. So—
I’ll hurt you back.
I’ll make you angry.
I’ll provoke you to rage, to madness, to violence,
you will never rest,
there will never be peace,
and all will see that you belong to the self-same suffering
that has captured me.
dıaptych(lεƒt) by Jef Safi 2008 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
This alone is right and fair: that you will suffer
as I have suffered,
as we all have suffered,
and you will see
I am the righteous one, here. We—
we will meet on the field of anger. And, if—
if you will not apologize,
if you will not agree to the world of my experiences
with my conditions,
with my demands,
if you refuse to hear me screaming
if you knock down my words, then—
there will be a clash,
there will be a war of fortresses,
and mutual annihilation.
I’ve read a lot of laments this year from church leaders who wish Advent was still a thing and, well, I’m sorry, but it’s not a thing anymore. Yes, let us lament that because Advent was a beautiful liturgical season, but let us also move on. I think fighting Advent-as-it-was is a losing battle. It no longer resonates culturally and it hasn’t for a long time. What we are left with is a list of ‘thou shalt nots.’ For example, thou shalt not, we sternly say, bringeth in the color red before proper Christmas.
But the most egregious sin of all is Christmas caroling before December 25th.
Carolers by Matt Rollefson 2005, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
We are the Debbie Downers of the modern Christmas season. Instead of blessing our congregations as they sing lustily and with great courage for the baby Jesus, we hush and shame them and insist they wait until Christmas is culturally over before letting the Angels Hark or Going and Telling It On the Mountain.
We are missing the boat here.
To state the obvious, Advent is a made-up ritual. Advent is a way that the church developed—in tandem with the cultures of the time—to dig into the essential meaning and hope of the coming Christmas season. But, like I said, it’s made-up. There was no Advent for hundreds of years after Jesus was born. If you want to get technical, the first and only ‘real’ advent belongs to Mary. Mary was the first to celebrate Advent and we don’t all do it like she did—with heartburn and swollen ankles.
Journal de bord de la future maman by Laurence Vagner 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Advent is really awesome, it’s just over, that’s all. Maybe it can be reclaimed and reinstituted but maybe not. I think we have to be careful of acting as if our faith is ‘church righteous’ and not Christ centered. If we declare Good to be lost if the rules of the calendar are violated what does that say about God? God breaks all the rules.
For goodness sake if the people want to sing a few Christmas carols how does that hurt you? Maybe, as a tradition for Mary’s sake, we should all also drink Mylanta instead of eggnog. (Btw eggnog is a pagan atrocity. Just saying.)
And I must stop now and apologize for snark. I’m gen x, snark is part of my dna.
What I really want to say is that the beauty of anticipation for Christmas is not dependent on Advent-as-it-was. Just like Mary’s heart was filled with anticipation and wonder for the birth of her child that first (and only real) advent, so the advent rituals that emerged in and of the church became a new and meaningful way to await Christ as a Christian community. This was all Good.
And now, here we are, again, looking at a new way. As a culture I see a lot of Good in how we actually celebrate the coming of Christmas. The only real difference is that we celebrate the anticipation and waiting of Advent not by holding out on Christmas, but by engaging it and interacting with it. For us today, we engage the material of Christmas as part of our real ritual of preparation. Gift shopping, decoration, the tree all goes up—and all of that is an exercise of anticipation. Interaction makes it real for us. We clergy need to shift how we think of ‘waiting’ in liturgical terms in order to make room for our cultural need for sensual (sensing) and intellectual interaction with the object we await.
Preparation and all its associated materials are the modern way we express the anticipation of the material miracle of Christ. As the tree goes up, so does our excitement for the day to come. As the Christmas songs are sung, so we enter into the place of ‘almost but not yet.’ When Thanksgiving dishes are cleared away and we think ahead to Christmas, the anticipation begins. In our mind’s eye we remember Christmases past, and we grow nostalgic. In looking back we prepare to look forward.
By mid-December we smell the pie baking and our mouths hunger for it! Luckily, one of our foodie aunts or uncles has already done some baking and it tastes sooo good! Whoopee! Christmas is coming!!
Mince pie and Christmas lights by Bertie Charman 2010 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
I hear the laments about the loss of Advent by churchfolk and they are right, Advent-as-it-was is not respected or observed any more. I’m sorry. I also hear the main thread of that lament in the observation that the material consumerism of Christmas looms larger and larger and threatens to swamp the manger and replace all the hay with tinsel. With fake glitter-coated sheep everywhere, who knows what will happen next. If glitter gets on the baby Jesus, all will be lost.
Three wise sheep by David Masters 2008 Flickr CC BY 2.0
Yes, the consumer reality of today is antithetical to the sacred reality of Advent. It really hurts to see it, I agree. And I lament this, too. But I think the real challenge is figuring out, not how to stand in opposition to people where they are, but how to stand alongside them. Can we put aside our laments in order that we can accompany the glitterati and affirm that Good part of Advent within them? This good part—the hunger for Christ, the impulse to generosity, the call to kindness and humility—is real. We as spiritual leaders can help the spiritually hungry to identify and name the anticipation they feel in new ways. We can choose to affirm all the good that they are expressing, and tune our sacred rituals to affirm that Good, even as we teach to deepen it.
A few Christmas carols and the opportunity to enter and share the people’s joy is well, well worth it. A whole bucketful of Christmas carols are worth it! So many Christmas carols that I am good and sick of them by Dec 26th are absolutely authentically worth it if we recognize in the singing the real opportunity to tell the story that Christ is coming—if God is with us, who can be against us! Shaking our heads and fingers at the carolers will only drive a wedge between Christmas and the Church.
This wedge is real. When I see things such as the zombie nativity I cringe. Comedic characters are obsessive characters. The church becomes a comedic character and an object of ridicule when it obsessively persists in outdated ritual-making, then clucks its tongue at the celebrations of others. Pop culture at its heart seeks revitalized conversation. Can we have that conversation? Can we engage profane or religious conversations as they actually exist?
So. We can tie our churches to an archaic calendar or we can live into the missional moment. There is good news here. If Advent is a made-up calendrical event, it can be reformed and renewed. If we but choose to look, we will see that hope and anticipation are very much alive in our time and a key character still in the lead up to Christmas. If we choose, we can let go of our church-righteousness, and instead witness to and teach foundationally and meaningfully what is essentially important—that Christ is coming! Praise be to God!
Lodi – Il Tempio Civico della Beata Vergine Incoronata ByGiovanni 2014 Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
I am attached to the idea of really good church. I love the feeling I get when I walk into a place that feels like sanctuary, as if the Holy Spirit has touched down there so many times that one day the Spirit decided simply to stay, and cry, and play, and love the people who worship there for as long as there is lamenting and praising before God.
I am attached to the idea of deeply loving God, of breathing in and of and with the Holy Spirit as I lift my hands to pray, lift my voice to sing, lift my heart to all that is Good, and lift my soul to the Lord, for my soul belongs to God. I am deeply attached to the word ‘beloved.’
I am attached to the notion of really good church community. I love the idea of being one of a great family of believers with whom I work for the glory of the Kingdom of God. And yes I said ‘glory,’ because God is glorious. And yes, I believe there is and will be a kingdom of God, a shining city, welcoming to all people, abundant with all creation, and flowing with the waters of life.
Warm enough by Andrew Vargas 2007 flickr CC BY 2.0
I am attached to—no committed to—the journey of my Christian faith. And I love being in a small group of people willing to share that journey with me, enriching my faith, challenging my limitations, strengthening my cowardice, holding my hand. I seek and need that circle of folk, people who I am honored to listened to, blessed to have shared with, and know I can count on for support and prayer come what may.
I am attached to good rituals of ‘hello’ and ‘farewell.’ I love being greeted by a brother or sister of the church who has the vulnerability and strength to look into my eyes warmly and lovingly. This is the sort of ‘hello’ you make when you really mean it! It says, ‘welcome’ and ‘I see you.’ Likewise I love a really good goodbye and fare well, with eye contact and a warm touch, a palm pressed against my forearm, a palm raised in a gesture of benediction. Like this:
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face…
Church Dancing by Adam Cohn 2011 flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I am attached living the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth with all my ability. I want to find compassion, generosity, kindness, and courage within me every day. I want to encourage compassion, generosity, kindness and courage in others. I want all people to know how precious they really are. I want people to really get that inside, to their core, that they are children of God. I want people to know that no matter how hard it gets or how bad they feel there is nothing more powerful than God, and God can and will work Goodness in their life.
I love the idea of Christ-like companionship—all people, all faces, all generations. I am attached to the hope of both receiving and providing that companionship. I am attached to the idea that I can learn to truly and humbly see the light in my family, my friend, my enemy and my neighbor, whether or not they see the light in me.
Looking Across Generations in Hyderabad by United Nations Photo 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I am attached to the idea of Grace—that God loves and blesses us even when we don’t deserve it. Even if we fall short over and over again, I am attached to the idea that we practice getting up, and getting up again, and in each falling short and getting up we are learning a little bit more to trust in God until one day we may be sanctified, a whole people “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ep 4:13)
Attachments are a feature of our lives. We are too often attached to things that are not life affirming. Because we think we are not worthy on the inside, or are too hurried or too depleted, or because we don’t really love, we are reluctant to participate in rituals of greeting, in small groups of listening, or in the kingdom work of building communities of justice and compassion. We raise up idols of wealth and status, after all these are far easier to chase after in the short term, in the midst of a life of turmoil and disconnection, when the waters of God’s shining city seem impossibly far away.
There are some who would say the highest order of human good is to let go of all attachments, every one. There are also those who say that self-seeking is the only right seeking. But I am not attached to those ideas. I believe that those of us called to Christianity are called to some attachments. I believe Christian discipleship is a discipline of heart and mind and Spirit. I believe that as a Christian I am indeed called to be and do things that matter in the world. I believe that we are called to this: to act with justice, to love kindness, to serve our neighbor, to love our enemy, and to walk humbly with our God.
Yes. I am very, very much attached to that. And I invite you to be a Christian disciple and to walk the Way with me.
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you. May the Lord look toward you and grant you peace.