Thinking Out Loud

December 19, 2017

Christmas Sunday: The Best Music and the Toughest Theology

Filed under: Christmas, writing — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:56 am

Over the last several months, my wife and I participated in a Christian short story contest. I’ve never actually entered one of these before; it was blind judging so the process by which you remit your entries was rather complex. We each submitted two entries, but apparently the competition was fierce. Over the next two weeks we want to share them with readers here. This story appeared here before in a slightly different form.


by Paul Wilkinson

Doug and Gary were always the last to leave the office and this day was no exception. Doug always turned off the lights as Gary set the alarm and as it was the weekend, he turned down the heat.

“It’s December, Gary,” Doug reminded his co-worker; “It was freezing in here on Monday morning; the company’s not that broke.”

If it was a Friday, Gary always asked Doug if he wanted to join him for church that weekend. Usually the excuse was sports related. In summer, a weekend at the cottage or heading Stateside for some cross-border shopping. In the winter, a child’s hockey practice or cross country skiing with his brother’s friends. So Gary was a little surprised by the response.

“Actually, I’m going to church with my wife on Sunday,” Doug replied.

“Oh right. I forgot. You’re a CEO,” Gary said smiling.

“A CEO?”

“Christmas and Easter only.”

They both laughed, then Gary continued, “You know it’s good that you’re going, but you always pick the two hardest days.”

“I know,” returned Doug, “The parking at that church is miserable at Christmas.”

“No, that’s not what I mean; you always choose what we could call incarnation and atonement Sundays. They’re the toughest ones to grasp.”

“Wait a minute, I thought you wanted me to attend church.”

“I do, but think about it; if you show up for The Good Samaritan, the message is ‘love your neighbor,’ that’s easy! And if you show up for Mother’s Day and the preacher’s text is ‘husbands love your wives,’ well, two minutes in and you’ve got that one. Come with me on Thanksgiving and the message is ‘give thanks.’ But incarnation –“

“Do you mean the flower?”

“No it’s the idea of God becoming man, God becoming one of us. People who study theology have wrestled with that for centuries. How can I describe it? See, God is like those triplicate forms we use to requisition materials from head office. The kind where what you write on the top part goes through to all three. It’s one form, but with three parts. But then God Himself rips out one of the pages — let’s call it the middle one –“

“You know, Gary,” Doug began, “I did go to church when I was younger and I’ve heard people talk about the trinity before, but that triplicate form thing is a first. Did you just make that up?”

Gary was on a roll now and ignored the interruption. “– and then the letter to the Philippians tells us that that part of God took on the role of a servant and entered into the human condition, even to the point of experiencing human death, and a rather excruciating one at that.”

“So you’re talking about Jesus. Incarnation is saying he was 50 percent man and 50 percent human. Like a centaur?”

“No it’s not 50/50, more like 100/100.”

“So that’s gotta hurt. Why would he do that? Why bother? Why go to all that trouble?”

“Well that’s the Easter part, the atonement part; the part that tells us why bother. In another letter, to a young disciple named Timothy, the same writer wrote that ‘Christ came into the world to save sinners, of which I’m the worst.'”

“The guy who wrote part of the Bible said he was the worst?”

“We’re all pretty much the worst, when you think of how pure God is. Jesus himself said he ‘came into the world to look for and save people who were lost.’ In another part he said that he came into the world to give his life to pay off a debt for all of us; and in yet another written account of his life we read that he didn’t come to condemn — which is what a lot of people think church is all about lately — but that through him everybody could have life that never ends.”

“Preach it! You really know this stuff. So now you’re talking about going to heaven when you die?”

“Well, actually, eternal life starts now.”

“How come I never heard that at a Christmas service before?”

“You did, but you probably weren’t tuned in to it. You’ve gone to church for so many Christmas services…it’s like…well…did you get a flu shot?”

“Of course I did; you know that.”

“Then tell me this,” Gary asked, “What did you get? What was in the shot?”

“I think it’s an inactive form of the flu strain. The body reacts to it and boosts your immunity.”

“Well, that’s you. You’ve showed up at so many Christmas Eve services that you’re immune. You sang the carols, and you enjoyed the soloists and maybe some years your kids were shepherds or sheep in the play, but you missed the connection between incarnation and atonement, and you can’t have the one without the other. Ultimately, Jesus — the baby in the manger — came to die for the world, for me, for you. The people in your church already know this so they don’t stress the big picture story. They get locked into the micro details to the point where they forget to explain the big story arc for CEOs like you.”

“Well…” Doug paused for a few seconds and then added, “Thanks for explaining that.”

By now a light snow was falling and it was time for both guys to get in their cars. “Don’t get me wrong;” Gary concluded, “The details are amazing, but our churches tend to forget to connect the dots in the macro story for those on the outside. Once you’ve got the big picture, it’s a story that you can’t ignore; it begs some type of response.”

While they’d been talking, a light snow had started and some flakes were sticking on the parking lot. Doug was thoughtfully mulling over all his friend had said. He opened his car door, but Gary had one more thing to add; “I think I can also help you with the Christmas church parking problem.”

“How’s that?” Doug asked.

“All you need to do;” Gary smirked, “Is show up at church ten minutes earlier.”

December 13, 2015

A Holiday Travel Alert

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:30 am

Many years ago blogger David Fisher introduced me to the poetry of Greg Asimakoupoulos whose work is posted at The Partial Observer. I felt that this poem, posted about ten days ago, would be a welcome addition to the mix here, especially with its provocative title! Send Greg some link love by clicking the title below to read this (and other works) at source.

A Holiday Travel Alert

Lessons from Mary and Joseph’s Flight to Egypt

by Greg Asimakoupoulos
December 4, 2015

The warning system set in place
suggested grave concern.
A terrorist in Israel hatched a plan.
Those leaving home this time of year
would do so at great risk.
The danger posed called for a travel ban.

A dad and mom and infant son
packed for their westbound trek.
They knew they had to make their midnight flight.
Determined to avoid the threat,
they cautiously escaped
advancing in the shadows of moonlight.

That terror cell in Bethlehem
achieved its ruthless plot
exterminating children under two.
With ISIS-like precision,
Herod killed the innocent
while unaware his hoped-for target flew.

And now-as-then the travel risk
this time of year is great.
Young families have good reason for their fear.
The tyranny of terror robs their joy
and steals their peace
because they can’t be sure when death is near.

So as You guided Joseph
on his flight to Egypt land
with Mary and young Jesus in his care,
won’t You dear loving Father
please protect the ones we love
as they travel in a car, by rail or air?

December 2, 2013

Connecting to the Bigger Christmas Story

Christmas Banner

For several years now we have either attended or participated in a walk-through re-creation of the Christmas story that takes place in a small village north of our town. In a world of blockbuster budgets and special effects, it always amazes me that people are willing to spend an hour in the variable (usually cold) weather to watch an amateur cast of volunteers do their best at being shepherds, tax collectors, innkeepers, etc. There are about 16 ‘stations’ on the tour for each imaginary ‘family’ to visit, and the event wraps up with an optional hayride followed by hot chocolate or cider and a cookie in the basement of the community hall.

People are drawn to this event. I don’t know what compels people to come. No one has any high expectations concerning the dramatic or musical ability of the participants. It’s like a holy hush falls over each little group of 10-15 people as their guide heads out on the quarter-mile walkabout. People simply receive the story.

The event was started by people concerned that the scriptural version of the story gets lost in all the other narratives that have been layered over what happened in Bethlehem.  Christmas ≠ The Little Drummer Boy, Christmas ≠ Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies, Christmas ≠ Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s not about mistletoe, fruit cake, or ugly sweaters. The story is not the story of a boy who wants to buy his mom some shoes, a little match-stick girl, a bell causing an angel to “get its wings,”  or Tiny Tim saying “God bless us every one.”  (And nobody “saw three ships” because Bethlehem is land-locked.)

Of course, the purpose of the annual event we attend is to keep alive the real meaning of Christmas. This is the moment in the busy rush of seasonal activities where, figuratively speaking, Linus steps out on the stage to tell the story to Charlie Brown from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. For about 20 minutes, we’re reminded of something really messy that took place two millennia ago in the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Something still a major force in the lives of people today.

But does this repeating of the story from Matthew or Luke really tell the full Christmas story? I wonder to what extent people are able to connect the dots if you don’t prompt them somehow? Something in me wants to put the cookies on a lower shelf (and not the ones that come with the cider). Would preaching a sermonette at the end ruin it? (Or as Jon Acuff would say, juke it; but how do you juke the Christmas story when Jesus is already at the center of it?)

Still, if asked, here is what I consider the real Christmas story:

  • First of all, the centerpiece of the Christian church is Easter, not Christmas. In Matthew and Luke, the narrative receives a total of 39 verses versus 744 for the Easter narrative. (This might be the only sentence on the internet that reads verses versus.)  You can skip the birth story entirely — like Mark and John do — but you can’t ignore the how or the why of Jesus’ death. And resurrection. The baby, the sheepherders, the wise guys, etc., all eventually segue toward an event involving betrayal and brutality. The latter is not the bedtime story that the former is.
  • Second, the Christmas story is part of a much larger story arc. Seen in isolation it really goes nowhere, it’s just a story about a woman and a baby born to an unwed mother in adverse conditions, while she and her fiancee were out of town. Rather, the birth of Jesus needs to be seen as the fulfillment of a promise; the completion of a covenant; the entry-point or heralding of the initiation of a new covenant. Turns out the novella you purchased is part of a series. The little town of Bethlehem scenes were just a trailer for an epic movie.
  • Third, somewhere along the way, you have to introduce the element of who Jesus claimed to be, and how he came to understand his own mission. The holiday celebrated in the western world on December 25th is all about incarnation, and frankly, you either get what that word means, or you don’t get the story at all. Like most Alfred Hitchcock movies, this is the scene where God steps into his own play, the director suddenly has a role, and not a small role. Jesus’ claim of equality of with God makes him appear like someone who is nuts, until you remember the parts about healing blindness, raising the dead, and predicting his own death and resurrection. We’ll avoid the theological differences of opinion on the divinity/humanity question, except to say that if you’re asking the question at all, you get it when it comes to who Jesus really was. And still is.
  • Finally — and there are other things we could introduce, but this is my imaginary sermonette, and I only have ten minutes — I would want to include the idea that this story didn’t end 2,000+ years ago. It continues to this day and (and this is so very important) it demands a response from everyone. The awkward phrasing of the KJV in Matthew 22:24, “What think ye of Christ?” is probably the question that should be on everyone’s lips each December, though you might choose a more modern rendering. The story is not content to have its hearers close the book on the final page. Rather, the book gets stuck open, simmering, percolating, demanding something of each individual with whom it comes in contact. It’s like a computer program you can’t shut down until you respond to a question in a dialog box. It stares at you, and goes, “Well? …Well? …What about it?”
  • And then, in a single sentence, I would squeeze in a mention that the story we repeat is simply Jesus’ first coming; he left us with the phrase familiar to millions of Arnold Schwarzenegger fans, “I’ll be back.”

That, Charlie Brown, is the true meaning of Christmas.

November 21, 2011

When The Manger Scene is Too Neat and Tidy

This was composed and recorded by a very good friend of mine.  Kick back for five minutes and consider what the scene at the back of the Bethlehem Inn really looked like those first few nights.

I have a little manger scene I unpack every year,
I put it on the mantle way up high
Safe from puppy dogs, little hands and wrestling adolescents,
Who might break a piece and make me want to cry.

I’ve had that little manger scene of china and of glaze,
Since I was just a kid of 4 or 5
For years and years I looked at it believing every line,
Cause it made the ancient story come alive

It makes me sentimental,  Though I know it didn’t happen quite that way
A little poetic license is OK.

In my little manger scene Mary’s got blue eyes,
she’s dressed in silk and satin like a queen
Joseph’s beard is neat and trim, just like his fingernails,
And everybody’s handsome and serene

The swaddled baby’s smiling up at three wise men standing guard,
So noble, not a sunburn neath their crowns
They’re hanging with the shepherds who are kneeling squeaky clean
on golden straw carpeting the ground

It’s all sleek and smooth and shining,
Tho’ I know it wasn’t quite like that, don’t you?
The truth is not quite so pretty, but it’s true

I bet Mary, she was saddle sore and Joseph couldn’t sleep
The wise men smelled like camels and the shepherds smelled like sheep
And the stable smelled like cattle and the things that cattle do
The baby woke up hungry every morning, half past two
And the straw got into everything, your shoes and in your hair
In the food and in the beds and on your nerves and everywhere

But our Mary, she’s no china doll, she’s a fighter through and through,
Joseph knows he has a job to do
There isn’t any stopping them, there isn’t any doubt,
Together they will see this journey through.

‘Cause she, she was a warrior, he was her strong right arm,
In a battle that they couldn’t comprehend
That baby was a treasure who would ransom all the world,
They’d carry him until he took his stand.

Even though Mary, she was saddle sore and Joseph couldn’t sleep
The wise men smelled like camels and the shepherds smelled like sheep
And the stable smelled like cattle and the things that cattle do
The baby woke up hungry every morning, half past two
And the straw got into everything, your shoes and in your hair
In the food and in the beds and on your nerves and everywhere

So if in my little manger scene, they look a little glazed
A little poetic license is OK.
Though I know it didn’t happen quite that way.

©2011 Ruth Wilkinson

December 20, 2010

Family Circus – Don’t Forget

Thanks to Bil Keane for a well-needed reminder…


December 10, 2010

Enjoying Christmas Without Missing the Point

Regular readers here at Thinking Out Loud will notice something different today.   One of this blog’s distinctives has been not relying on video embeds for daily post content.   But the one I’m embedding today is somewhat special.

It’s not the musical quality, or the recording quality; it’s just my wife and I with some extra time on Wednesday, and a desire to share with my blog audience a song I’ve been singing somewhere every Christmas for a rather long number of years.

There’s something about being “home for Christmas;” something about the fact the pace of life slows down for a day or two.   No wonder that it’s so difficult for people who are alone on December 25th; being with friends or family seems to define the day.    (Which is why people where I live are reviving the annual “Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day” for people who don’t have close family, or can’t afford all the trimmings of the season.)

We didn’t have time to do this up as professionally as we might have, but I hope you’ll kick back and enjoy the song and its ideas.   Most of the technical work was that of my wife, Ruth; who, on some of this, was learning on the fly.   If we could ever cut loose from our individual projects, we could be the Christian version of Pomplamouse!

Most important, I hope you’ll reconnect with the thought that the familiar “birth of Christ” narrative in Luke is the start of much, much longer story.   One that continues into eternity.

Canadian readers:  Don’t forget you can still contribute to our Salvation Army iKettle.   Donations stay with your community.   More details here; or go direct to our iKettle.

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