Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: alternativity

We need better imaginations for our social justice movements

Advent is coming

It’s Advent Eve, Eve (this year Advent starts on November 29, four sundays before Christmas Day). I find myself more ready than ever to enter into the yearly practice of communal waiting. I need time to ponder and space to consider. This year turns up all the questions and the tension is killing me except when I let Jesus raise me form the dead. Many of my notions are dropping like flies. In one sense this is wonderful — I’m learning more about who I am and who we are meant to be in Christ; in another sense this is awful — the disorientation of Jesus’ different ways is so frustrating and confusing at times. Once again, Advent welcomes us into the paradox of God-with -us. A King of Kings who comes to serve — an almighty God who is born with a skull you could crush in the palm of your hand (Francis Schaeffer).

Isaiah long expected this surprising Savior.

Isaiah 42:1-9

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
     my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
     and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
    or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
     he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
    In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

The baby Jesus, King of Kings, is a wonderfully strange paradox to consider. “Born Thy people to deliver,/ Born a child and yet a King” as Charles Wesley put it in his poem made song (Come Thou Long Expected Jesus). Isaiah’s imagination captures this paradox long before the Word became flesh. How does someone bring justice without crying out in the streets? What does the gentleness in Isaiah 42 have to do with establishing anything in this messy world?

The Servant who is also King is a grand reversal, a challenge to all our political strategies. Some might take this passage as a call towards quietism. Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not of this world” could be received as a prohibition against political involvement of any kind, and some of our faith cousins, even some within Circle of Hope, believe this to be the right interpretation. But if you are called to speak up for justice—to take up the mantle of the prophets as a compassionate response to the unjust world we live in –to love your neighbor as yourself–what do you do? The Servant and King, Jesus, gives us a clue.

The temptation to overcome evil with evil

Otherizing the opposition is a sure fire way to galvanize a movement. The easiest way to organize a group of people is to unite them against a common enemy. Other people who do evil in our eyes are the natural enemies for a movement, but Jesus’ enemy-loving message transcends all notions of “other”, “stranger” and “enemy.” He manages to convict the wrong-doer by imagining a future for them. He tends the smoldering wick in case it might be kindled back to flame. He compassionately sees people in their tenderness and strengthens their will for transformation. He see the wounds we all have and offers us healing.

The Baby King babies us without infantilizing us. He calls us to who we are meant to be while giving us the strength and courage to actually change who we are. We who follow in his way bring that gentleness to our creative action to care for the poor and the oppressed. Elected officials ought to covet our moral message and the love with which we doggedly profess it. Our best advocacy is our alternative community. It is the ground from which we prophesy to those who might be convicted by the truth, even those empowered enough to do great harm to the people we love. If our imagination for their transformation is part of our vision for the future, we are on the right track. 

Take action with Mennonite Central Committee (They need it)

Mennonite Central Committee is Circle of Hope’s most global expression of compassion (but our Compassion Teams ain’t nothing to sneeze at). We share money with MCC through our thrifts stores (when they can be open enough to share — Lord, hear our prayer) and through a portion of our Common Fund (this has not changed in the pandemic year). Our pastors serve on boards of the organization as well. Joining with MCC is one way we lift our voice together in a creative, transformational ways. Go to mcc.org and sign up for action alerts from the Washington Office, or learn something about what they’re doing on their website. Pray for the problems you encounter, for alleviation of suffering and for creative responses from ourselves and all who follow our Servant King. One specific thing to pray for: that they can get in to the places where they are needed. The whole world is gummed up. It’s hard to move people or supplies anywhere to meet the needs of the partners we work with all around the world. Give them a little extra if you have it because their funding is seriously hindered by the pandemic. 

Bring it, Advent

Happy Advent y’all! Let us start the lamentation! The world is not as it should be. We are not as we should be. But let us not descend to shame. The world is not yet what it WILL be. We are not yet who we WILL be.

The world will be.

We will be.

And Jesus will make it so, even as he has begun to do so in us. The desire for transformation of the world and for ourselves that we are feeling right now is evidence of the hope we have in Jesus. Let us trust that hope and trust the Author of Hope to bring our desires to completion.

How does a Christian Celebrate the Fourth of July?

Happy Fourth of July? How does a Christian celebrate the beginning of a nation with such a shaky foundation? Thomas Jefferson wrote about self-evident truths that were so abstract they excluded women and black people from their universality. The land the American Revolutionaries fought for was stolen from the First Nations people. But I don’t think calling out the obvious evil at the heart of the American project is a deep enough critique. In fact, critique is not deep enough at all. We must build an alternative which allows us to love the world from an entirely different footing.

Because this is where we live. The people in my neighborhood (whom I LOVE) are having a house decorating competition seeing who can be the most red, white and blue. What am I to do? Must I boycott the fanfare entirely? Must I close my eyes and ears to the fireworks? Must I register my non-participation by draping my house in the black of mourning (I considered that). I’m thinking my “yes” to the kingdom of God is more important than my “no” to empire. I say this in part because I despair at the prospect of making a significant impact. This might just be despair, but it might be the unavoidable truth of history.

From my perspective, human history is not a grand sweep toward progress, but a cycle of violence and collapse. The near future science fiction of Octavia Butler, written in the mid-nineties, seems eerily prophetic. I think that could actually happen! Empires rise and fall. The industrial revolution was less than 150 years ago. An incredibly short period of time! Throughout history, when the state of things ushers in more and more concentration of wealth, the powerful eventually lose. This seems inevitable. How then do I engage?

I recently read Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, which is another prophetic book from the mid-nineties.  Hauerwas and Willimon argue that the church has accommodated the political concerns of the State for most of its history. We have entered into the fray in many disastrous ways. They call this “Constantinianism” after the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, who co-opted the church for the unity of his empire. His empire fell but the arrangement between Church and State persisted and the modern Church in America has not repented even if separation of Church and State is part of the founding documents.

Hauerwas and Willimon argue that both contemporary conservative and liberal churches in the United States have basically capitulated to the State. We have surrendered our imaginations to the limited options provided to us by the myth of American progress. Our prophecy is bound by two options: 1) “America is bad” and 2) “America is good.” The locus of change is in, and by, and for the State. William Cavanaugh wrote an excellent book called Migrations of the Holy which charts this development through time. Hauerwas and Willimon say that both conservative and liberal churches have been primarily concerned with making life a little better for the world by promoting a particular social ethic. “Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (31).

Their alternative resonates with me. “The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it. The church is not to be judged by how useful we are as a ‘supportive institution’ and our clergy as members of a ‘helping profession.’ The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor” (39).

But when the streets flood in the middle of a pandemic with people calling for a drastic reevaluation of how we ensure public safety for all people, I am stirred. I have gone to a few marches myself. I joined up with other faith leaders in New Jersey to consider what can actually be done to reimagine policing (faithinnewjersey.org). I put a Black Lives Matter sign in my window. I have dug deeper into the personal work of understanding my own deformation by this pernicious power of white supremacy in our culture.

All of these tactics coming out of the movement have been met by some suspicion from some folks in our church. They have read Hauerwas and Willimon’s book, or they have at least adopted its posture because we have been teaching it as Anabaptists for a long time. Are we conforming to the way of the world, and in so doing are we abandoning the Church’s alternative mandate? Are we standing on a side just because of our political persuasion? I have definitely heard this from the body, and I sympathize with that concern.

However, I see in the Gospels a decided sidedness to Jesus’ Way. God has forever been on the side of the poor and the oppressed. From the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, the inauguration of the People of God, the scripture has reminded us again and again to be a peculiar people who does not cooperate with empire. And yet we have undoubtedly cooperated with empire and must be on guard against doing so now. Jesus’ teaching made an alternative abundantly clear. He was not creating a new morality, or a new ethic, or new means of righteousness. He was himself our righteousness and his teaching aimed to awaken us to a new way of seeing the world.  He called into question the foundations of Israel’s self-understanding and practice, and he ought to do the same to every generation and every nation.

The kingdom of God is a new way of seeing and being in the world. Jesus gave us a new place to stand. Jesus created a new humanity belonging to a new kingdom which allows us to speak to the empires, like America, or the G20, or Netflix, without centering ourselves on the outcomes of their worldly projects. We have a new identity in Christ which provides us the freedom to do more than critique and repent (though Jesus calls us to that as well). We can build on a foundation that will not be shaken because our Kingdom is eternal and is not subject to the course of empire.

But the people I love, especially the poor and the oppressed – especially the descendants of Black slaves who were not considered equal by the declaration that is celebrated this weekend –  especially the descendants of the First Nations people who have been systematically impoverished and killed via government sponsored genocide and ongoing marginalization – especially the descendants of the women who are still fighting for recognition of their full humanity and unmeasurable contribution to our communal wellbeing – these people whom I love, and whom Jesus leads me to love, require my partnership. I feel compelled to submit to the movements that seem viable to change the outcomes for these people.

When I join in these movements, when I am even led by them, am I abandoning the place Jesus has given us to stand? It’s possible. There is a real tension here. And I think Circle of Hope is feeling it. We must prioritize our togetherness as we figure this out together. If we let the confusion and disorientation of our incredibly polarized national conversation divide us, I am sure we will then be abandoning our God given new humanity. The bond of peace between us must persist or we will have nothing left to offer the world. The faith, hope and love that fuels Circle of Hope’s compassion and action on behalf of the poor and the oppressed (which is considerable!) will crumble if we cannot love one another through these difficult days.

I want to have something more to offer my neighbors than my objection to their celebration, and I think it is the Church. I think Circle of Hope really does create an excellent environment for people to connect with God and act for redemption. That redemption includes our prophetic voice to the evils of the world, but it also creates a protective container of grace which makes personal transformation possible.

This grace permeates my relationships with me red, white and blue addressed neighbors. I have spent years in the spiritual gym of Circle of Hope, learning to love people who disagree with me, irritate me and even attack me at times. The Church is a place where grace muscles are grown – where we become more than the limited imaginations given to us by the world.

We grow from the certainty of a future declared to us by Jesus, inaugurated by his death on the cross, confirmed in his resurrection from the dead, and manifested daily by the power of the Holy Spirit. Strengthened by all this promise and power from God, I believe we can stand together, love one another and offer an alternative, even as we diverge in how we engage in the struggles to which we are called.   

Hey (!), White People (!), We Get to Repent!

What an extraordinary moment in American History! A bunch of my friends are getting the day off for Juneteenth. There’s talk of making it a national holiday and I don’t think that sounds far-fetched.  Confederate monuments are coming down. Christopher Columbus statues are coming down. It seems like the last vestiges of racism in America are just about done and sorted out.

Syke!

It IS an extraordinary moment in American History but there is tons of racism still hanging around. And I’m pretty sure it will stay. They might try to get us to calm down with national holidays and changing the twenty dollar bill, but racism isn’t going away just like that. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but I need me to tell me this because I’m pretty excitable. I fall for the bells and whistles pretty hard pretty much every time. Oooh, shiny! Amazon gave me a movie for free! Oh wow! Philadelphia changed it’s police budget! Nice! Donald Trump changed his mind for once, what?! But the first thing we get to be excited about is not all these corporate and political high fives to what the powers that be are really hoping is a fad — no, not that, we get to be excited about repentance! (Which might yield the real change we are hoping for, and which, thank God, is not absent from the high-fiving, suspicious as it seems). I’m praying for as many people as possible to learn how good it feels to repent.

If this unique moment in my lifetime ends up NOT being a fad, it will be in large part because white people like me decide to love repentance. This is a tall order because we have individualized and moralized almost all of the grace and redemption out of our public dialogue. Justice, in its poor, worldly definition, is about punishment and we are still learning how to have a better imagination. But as a Christian, the best thing I have to bring to the dialogue is a familiarity with repentance. We can even bring joy to repentance. Of course repentance is often painful, but not at the root. The root of repentance is God’s kindness. And the first things fed by that wonderful root are empowerment to change — a “Yes!” we can change — and hope for transformation — Double “Yes!” We can change. Christians who grow from this root and are nurtured by its fruit can say with not a little gladness, “We get to  change!”

Paul warns us in Romans 2 not to show “contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience” For we must realize “that God’s kindness is intended to lead [us] to repentance.” White Christians run the risk of demanding grace and redemption  instead of STANDING ON grace and redemption to face down the power of white supremacy in their lives. Paul’s whole argument in Romans 1 through 8 is a crescendo-ing symphonic plea to believe in and behave from Christ’s love. He is begging us to stand on Christ’s love. Paul’s argument climaxes at the end of chapter 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Racism and white supremacy are demons that shall not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. But Paul does not say the demons aren’t real. He does not say the past does not threaten the present. We need this swelling song in our hearts all day long — 24/7, 365 — because we “face death all day long”! The lies we have believed consciously and otherwise are real threats. The reality of racism in the United States is undeniable and it’s pretty great that so many people are agreeing to do something about that right now. The thing I have to offer to what’s happening as one who has spent some time learning to repent is to bring a non-anxious presence to the process of exposing my own internalized white supremacy. Yes, it hurts.  I confess that I have been confused and uncomfortable often in the past few weeks. I haven’t figured it all out, and I really like to figure it all out. The discomfort is real, but I am letting it burn rather than snuffing it out. It feels like it is the  consuming fire of God.

This process of repentance will last my whole life, and the prospect of that would wear me down if I hadn’t already tasted the fruit of that tree whose root is God’s kindness. Repentance can feel good. I am revealing who am in Christ. I am putting to death what was already made dead when Christ died for me on the cross. I am uprooting the sin that entangles the kindness which was planted at the heart of me. My wounding will definitely be touched again and again, both the way I have been wounded and the way I have wounded others. Hopefully, my livelihood will be affected again and again. For our repentance ought to be actual and not relegated to some spiritual sentimentality. Surely, my relationships will be impacted again and again.  For I will need to change my behavior in demonstrable ways. This is all difficult to do, but if I can trust through the pain of all that exposure, I am confident that God will meet me with kindness and lead me through to the repentance which I was made for. I am convinced of this. We get to do this.

This moment in history is an opportunity for repentance to rise. We can get out from under the tininess of our super-individualized understandings of ourselves. We can escape the captivity of our definitions of a counterfeit justice rooted in punishment and experience some more imaginative prophecy for another possible world and another possible self for each of us. We can face the music of our complicity and cooperation with the lie of racism, confess it and be free to sing the new song of the New Jerusalem. We know where history is heading, and there are parts of us that are not going to make it to the end of time — THANK GOD! This is who we are as Christians. Let’s bring our best to it. We get to repent!

Happy Juneteenth, friends. I love you.

How Does a Christian Celebrate Memorial Day?

During the Covid 19 pandemic should we hit the boardwalk or stay at home? Are the CDC and the government our only authorities? What does Jesus say? And in any Memorial Day, how do we relate to those who died in war and their families while also resolving to decry the existence of war? Jesus makes our purpose more clear when it comes to war than when it comes to the pandemic, but it all requires resolve and dialogue — and above all, LOVE.

 

How do Christians work? Is that even a thing anymore?

This blog post was co-written by Ben White and Jonny Rashid after our church hosted a meeting for theological thinkers and seminarians on developing a theology of work.

The problem of work in the 21st Century United States

France has a law that prohibits an employer from Emailing her employees after hours. They are enforcing “work/life” balance. Amazon warehouse workers are timed for how long they are in the bathroom. Speaking of Amazon, U.S. postal workers are being pushed to-the-max in order to keep up with the market driven by the supercompany. Meanwhile, our politicians keep promising us jobs and telling us how much they value the American worker. Amazingly, despite the flack they get from their parent’s generation, millennials are the hardest working generation—bordering on workaholism.

The meaning of work, it seems, has changed. In the United States, with many manufacturing jobs gone, we have an increasingly “knowledge-based” economy. It requires an education to enter, hence all the hullabaloo about free college and student debt cancellation from the rotating cast of presidential nominees. Work has taken up more of our interior lives by nature of this shift. “What is work?” is more of an internal question, and less of material one. The lessening of the physical materiality of work gives us a new problem. Work isn’t just about labor, it’s not just a means to an end, it’s something more—like religion.

Among our generation, people are trying to find existential fulfillment from their jobs. It’s only natural considering the above mentioned trend. But seeking fulfillment through such a limited medium isn’t working. Not for our friends, anyway. The pull, however, toward such patterns of thought, is present in us too. Our jobs aren’t meant to offer us the sort of vocational fulfillment we seek from them. But convincing serfs that their work for their lords is their ultimate calling is a great way to get good work out of earnest people. This is both true of folks who want to rise fast in their company, and those who serve in a helping profession.

Don’t let the existential dread set in

When thinking is work, it’s hard to think about work

That pursuit, despite being fundamentally flawed, isn’t too far from what Christian vocation may look like. Jordan Burdge recently offered us a reflection on vocation drawn from the inspiration of the Middle Ages in Europe. Check out the whole video here. He summarized vocations for Europeans as the choice between being a priest, nun, monk, or being married. Those where the basic options they had. Today we have so, so many more options. It’s really hard to sort through them all. So when our endless appetites meet the myriad options it’s pretty easy to make unhealthy choices.

Vocation is a popular idea in the United States and the Christian church that lives here. Not only are we sold the lie that we can become anyone we want to be or do anything we want to do, we’re often told we have to figure out that one perfect thing we are meant to do. And Christians are as complicit in this behavior as Americanists are. Our calling from God is much more universal than specific. You aren’t necessarily destined to do the work you do for money. Your satisfaction does not have to be dependent on the perfect fit in your employment. Paul was called to be a missionary, for example, not to be the tent-maker that sustained him. Same with Jesus as a carpenter, and the fisherman who left their family business to have a New Family business. Again, we are working on understanding work in a difficult era for such thinking.

The culture of work in the United States is so messed up, that it may be tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Work may have been so corrupted by our economic forms that developing a theology of Christian work might be too much to consider. But Miroslav Volf took a shot at a Christian theology of work  and we would like to endorse and propose his core ideas as basis for our Christian understanding.

Volf highlights the challenge to think of these things because work is now by-and-large “knowledge-based,” and so “thinking” is working (as we said above). Space for contemplation, which may be seen as unshackling our minds from thoughts, in order to truly experience God, is taken up by “thinking as work.” There is rarely a moment in the day in which our minds are not fully engaged with work. We have to snatch every moment of mind to rest while our computer loads a file or we’re standing in the grocery line or we get no rest at all. It’s not all or nothing, but it seems like it is⁠—like the only way to get any rest is to unplug and go to Bermuda, and who can afford that with all these student loans, right? Somewhere along the line the only people who could live a life of contemplation became those who left the world and lived as a hermit or something. It was the Ancient Greeks who drew all these lines between things, but it was us who agreed not to cross them. An active life and a contemplative life are not polar opposites. They actually harmonize quite nicely. Though varying in degrees of importance in different times and circumstances, they actually work together to complete the other.

Volf focuses on eschatology and pneumatology as his sources of understanding work. The work of the Christian is known in doing whatever it is that helps to bring about the Kingdom of God or New Creation which will be fully revealed at the eschaton or last day (that’s the eschatology). The work of the Christian is also known through the spiritual gifts, or charisma, we have been given (that’s the pneumatology). Christians, then, need to work to find their gifting in order to cooperate with God’s plan of bringing the Kingdom of God into its fullness. Volf says, “When people work exhibiting the values of the new creation (as expressed in what Paul calls the ‘fruit of the spirit’) then the Spirit works in them and through them.”

Seeing Christian vocation through a glass darkly

We think our work is neither “sacred” or “secular,” but that our cooperation with God is something that happens across our lives and not just in the confines of our “spiritual life.” In fact, we reject the notion of “work/life balance” because it distinguishes work and life, as if you aren’t alive when you are working, nor are you working when you are living the part of your life for which you don’t get paid. These incessant dichotomies belittle our full personhood. We are called to cooperate with God in the ways that the Spirit has gifted us.

Of course, this is hard too. Especially in the United States. The guiding philosophy we described above is imposed on us with strident force. Work is imposed upon us as a source of meaning, whether we like it or not. If we are not actively examining our lives it will almost certainly happen automatically without our consent. But we believe that we cannot find meaning in our work apart from the Holy Spirit and cooperation with God. This isn’t just a problem in our neoliberal political economy. It’s a problem in any competing economic form. The Kingdom of God, as demonstrated by the church of Jerusalem in Acts, and all over the Bible, really, is showing us another way to live and to work no matter where or when in world history we seek some understanding.

It is hard to remember who we are and what we believe unless we are living it out in some kind of new environment. Our attempt in Circle of Hope has been to create an environment where people can discern their own spiritual gifts and apply them in service to the church, and use them in every arena of their life. Your spiritual gifts are not just for the church, and your education is not just for your job. Your natural talents and proclivities are good signposts for what God has for you to do, but there are many ways to express our gifts, and one might be your ability to not get exactly what you want. You might give more from your understanding of what the community needs. Keep discerning what is best in community and hold your opportunities for service lightly, and you will be fine.

Paul is plain about how important the different parts of the body are. Unfortunately, our stratified society has made a sort of preference for certain roles and not others. Our job is to honor everyone in the body so that they are rewarded with gratitude and love for their service, no matter what they are bringing. Monetizing work may be a necessity, and sometimes may be a good incentive to work, but we admit it’s not the ideal way to honor work. Instead, love, respect, and appreciation are more in line with our kingdom aspirations.

You can see the environment we are creating best by being in our community. Sunday meetings and cells are our primary places to do this work. Serving and worshiping in these meetings is the best chance we have to offer for you to exhibit the values of the new creation and experience the Spirit working in you and through you. They might be the invitation to a life of cooperation with God. Check one out on our website. But if you’re far away, get connected somewhere where the demands of your life don’t end at your own, and the people you love have space to earn your trust and help you see your gifts.

Epiphany Means Christmas Ain’t Over Yet

My Parents Invented an Alternative Ritual

When I was in first grade my parents dropped a major bomb: No gifts on Christmas! I don’t remember it being too devastating because they made the alternative so fun. Instead of getting gifts form Mom and Dad on December 25th, stacked under the Christmas Tree in a perfect morning ritual of wrapping ripping and childhood joy, we would receive gifts on January 1st, our self-styled celebration of Epiphany. The Feast of Epiphany is actually January 6th (this Sunday in 2019) but my mom says that she did not want us to go back to school, usually on January 2, without our presents. They wanted the family to do something different but they didn’t want us to be left out. I did not keep our alternativity a secret. I told all of my first grade classmates how on January 1st, my parents hid presents all over the house for us to find, each one unwrapped with a little love note from them on it. As I write this, a weird memory of a drawing my friend Josh made flashes through my mind. He had written and illustrated a story about a family of fuzzy monsters who celebrated Christmas and Epiphany like my family. I can still see the crayon drawn blue horned monster on the roof of his house finding a present from his monster parents. I guess I’ve always been an evangelist.

My parents wanted to escape the commercialism of Christmas. They wanted to avoid the unavoidable association of Jesus’ birthday and getting stuff. They did not succeed but they did jam a wedge of separation between the actual day we celebrate the incarnation of God and my often greedy little desires.

Unhitch Christmas from Getting Stuff

I’m probably painting myself and all children a little too  darkly. The ritual of Christmas morning is beautiful. We give and receive gifts to celebrate the love of God expressed to us so perfectly in Jesus. And the simple joy a child so easily expresses is something worth instigating and treasuring whenever we find ourselves in its presence.  But it’s hard for any story, even Jesus’ nativity, to outshine getting stuff. My parents’ invention of a new ritual succeeded in unhitching the demand for stuff and the potential joy the extravaganza might create from the celebration of Christmas. Gift giving is not the center of my Christmas celebration. I don’t have any sense of demand about creating a perfect memory for my kids by what I buy them. I want them to receive the story more than anything else. I’m glad my parents helped me feel this way. i think their alternative ritual had something to do with it.

I have not kept up the family tradition with my own children. My wife, Gwyneth, and I give our kids gifts on Christmas Day, but with a nod to the origins of Epiphany — three gifts for each of our sons a la the three gifts the Magi brought for Jesus.

Wait, What is Epiphany?

Friend: “What did you get for Christmas?”
First Grade Me: “Nothing, I got presents for Epiphany.”
Friend: “Wait, what is Epiphany?”

Matthew 2:9-11 “They went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

These strange characters from far away enter Jesus’ birth narrative in Matthew 2. They are led by stars and dreams and they are wealthy, so wealthy they might have been kings. Matthew calls them Magi — wise men (or wizards?). This episode is called Epiphany because it was the revelation of the Christ child to the whole world in these strange foreigners. They recognized him for who he was and worshiped him.  Epiphany comes directly from Greek ἐπιφάνεια (epipháneia). More on our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body Blog this Sunday (or search for Epiphany there later).

Christmas Ain’t Over

The Christmas Tree in my living room is still up (On January 3rd when I’m writing this) and the lights on my house are still shining (including our very apropos star) because Christmas ain’t over yet. Even if it’s already past my family’s January 1st  Epiphany celebration, I’m holding out for January 6th to take it all down. Remember that song, “The 12 Days of Christmas”? Epiphany is the 12th Day!

I already started my New Year’s diet but the feast of Christmas is still going. Our culture spreads the celebration forward through all of December and most of November, too. We love the most wonderful time of the year so we spread it all out as much as possible. You may have heard me say a million times already, but this is mostly because the marketers and manufacturers love the most wonderful time of the year for money making, and that is the main reason for the Christmas Creep. But we also love feasting and we need a good reason to celebrate. I think we moved the celebration in the wrong direction. I’m trying to hold on to the 12 Days of Christmas as another alternative. There was too much drama in Advent leading up to this celebration for it to be over in one day.

In the Catholic church, the observation of Advent was at one point a fast. Some churches still prohibit any “alleluias” being spoken in the liturgy during the season before Christmas (I love the intensity of that drama!). Our alternative of Advent leaves us with different needs. If you really take Advent seriously you need at least 12 days of Christmas. If you spent December waiting and watching and laboring with new spiritual birth instead of “jolly-christmas-time-november-december”, you need an extended Christmas.

I’m Going For All Twelve Days of Christmas

I did “jolly-christmas-time-november-december” in a lot of ways. We can take what is good from the culture without being spoiled by it. But I also did some real spiritual laboring in Advent. I withheld some of the celebration. I leaned hard into my longing and tried not to ignore the darkness into which the light of the world was coming. I’m not the last one in my neighborhood with lights still up, but I was struck by how quickly so many of my neighbors stripped it all down on the third or fourth day of Christmas. I’m going all the way to twelve! And Epiphany is a Sunday this year so I’m looking forward to a couple more Christmas parties with Circle of Hope at our meetings.

I’m overjoyed I have an alternative community to keep living the story with. Join us if you’re close by.