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It’s still Christmas!

“On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four colly birds, three French hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”

The anonymous author of this song did not make up the idea of twelve days of Christmas. In the church calendar, the season of Christmas lasts twelve days, until the Day of Epiphany. So if you visit Christ Church this Sunday you will find us still singing Christmas hymns. (With also a hymn for the Holy Name of Jesus, since Sunday is also the feast of the Holy Name, aka the Circumcision of Jesus.) And you can still enjoy the lovely decorations the Altar Guild put up for Christmas.

Church on Christmas Day seems to be primarily an adult thing, so on this next Sunday after Christmas, I am going to be prepared to preach the Nativity story for children. We preachers tend to assume that people of all ages know the basic story, and that they want to hear some new angle on it. But for young children, that isn’t true. And in Oregon, where only a minority of the culturally Christian attend church on any regular basis, it may not even be true for many adults. So I will be talking about Jesus’ naming and circumcision, but in the context of the bigger story of this baby born over 2000 years ago who we believe was even more special than other babies.

Christmas Services

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On my “To Do” list today is, “Proof Xmas Eve bulletin,” and “Proof Xmas Day bulletin.” Yes, it is almost Christmas, and there will be two services here.

On Christmas Eve, at 7:30 pm we will start with a half-hour of carol singing. Followed at 8pm with a festive Eucharist service. The Gospel will be the story of the birth of Jesus according to Luke.

On Sunday, Christmas Day, at 10 am we will have a simple spoken Eucharist. The Gospel will be the prologue of the gospel according to John.

Two very different views of the incarnation: In Luke, the earthy story of a young woman and her husband and their first baby, with the addition of angels and shepherds. And John’s philosophical reflection, in the context of the Jewish Wisdom tradition, on the incarnation of God the Creator.

This week of preparation, I am ruminating on my sermons, and what keeps coming to mind is not a text but a poem and song: “Love came down at Christmas.” This poem, by Christini Rossetti, is in our hymnal set to an Irish tune. “Worship we the Godhead, love incarnate, love divine . . . Love shall be our token; . . . love to God and neighbor, love for plea and gift and sign.”

If you are our neighbor, we would love to share these services with you.

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Evangelism

I have to confess that, like many Episcopalians, I have negative associations with the word “evangelism.”

I grew up in a post-Christian household. My parents had both been taken to church as children, and my mother had even attended an Episcopal school. But when I was a child my father described himself as an agnostic or atheist, and my mother described herself as a heretic. I remember attending church once: the Sunday School was boring, and the adult service must not have been much better, because we never went back.

As a non-churchgoer in 1960’s suburban America, I was the occasional target of evangelism efforts. I remember going with a high school classmate to a play at her church. Somehow evangelism was woven in with the story of the invention of the steam engine. It did not convert me to belief. My little sister once came home and announced that she had become a Christian. Our mother made her read the Book of Job, which cured her of her temporary belief.

My belief in God came about not through persuasion, but through experience. As a depressed teenager, I found a good therapist and discovered that if I was willing to let go of the internal walls that imprisoned me, there was a force of healing that was stronger than me. I chose to call that loving force “God.”

It took another 10 years for me to make my home in a church and call myself not only a believer in God, but a Christian. I think it would have been a shorter process if not for evangelism and some false ideas in the church about conversion. In case you don’t already know – not everyone who prays for Jesus to enter their hearts has their prayer answered with an emotional or cognitive change. You do people a disservice if you promise that they will.

What did help were friends and teachers who were themselves believers and who let me talk about my thoughts and experiences. Who helped me fit those thoughts and experiences into the historical framework of belief. And who dispelled my stereotypes about what Christians believed. I learned that the simplistic “heaven or hell” belief presented at State Fairs was an outlier in historic orthodox Christianity. I learned to distinguish repentance for specific sins, and acceptance of forgiveness, from an unhealthy generalized sense of shame. I learned new habits of prayer, and let the sacraments do their gradual work of realignment of my spirit.

I am only one generation removed from a time when religious identity and observance was a part of almost every family’s life. When I had questions about faith there were friends of my generation who had some knowledge and experience. And I was lucky that my family tradition happened to be that of the Episcopal Church, so this feminist intellectual found a church community that supported my continued growth in faith and action.

How, I wonder, do people without that family connection learn that such a community exists? To me, that is the positive meaning of evangelism: letting people know that God desires them as they are and as they will grow to be when nourished by a community of love and inquiry. There is a Buddhist saying, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Maybe that is our evangelism prayer: that whenever a person is ready to talk about God, we are there to listen.