Uh-oh. Jesus seems to be missing.

ch cardIt’s Christmas-card time again. Kind of. The numbers are dwindling. In years past, we received about fifty to sixty cards from friends we’ve made in the different places where we’ve lived. With five days to go, we’ve only received fourteen.

That’s OK. It’s a different world. We’ve been keeping up with most of our friends all year long via Facebook. No need for a Christmas letter. I get well over one hundred online birthday greetings each year. Christmas has gone that direction, too.

But of those fourteen cards, only three had a nativity. Only three depicted the infant Jesus in a manger. Pine needles, stockings, cardinals (the bird), stars, trees and candles are the predominant themes this year. Some have Christian messages, even bible verses, within, but depictions of the newborn king are few and far between.

Eight of those cards were from members of the church. To their pastor. With no Mary, Joseph, manger or baby Jesus in sight. Come on, folks, humor me. Throw me a bone! Hey, you can even draw one in. That’s good enough for me. I just want to see that baby.

Walk through Bethlehem

web-header---201711Last night, my wife and I, along with my daughter and her family, walked through “Walk Through Bethlehem,” an annual Christmas season production by Crossroads Ministry in Daytona Beach, FL. This is the second time I have gone, but the event is in its twenty-first season. Over two weekends, around 10,000 people walk through a recreation of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, built entirely on twenty-one acres of the church’s campus. The first time I went was two years ago. This time we brought along my two-and-a-half year old grandson, with the promise of seeing a camel. (For some reason, we thought there would be a camel there, but more on that later.)

We went early this year and were some of the first to arrive on the opening night of this years event. Greeted warmly by at least half-a-dozen people, we found out seats in the auditorium staging area, where we waited for our group to be called. Groups of about twenty go on the walk at a time, and while you wait, you get to listen to some great Christmas music by live soloists and ensembles. Since we came early, our wait was short, and before my grandson had consumed two snacks, we headed out with out group to Bethlehem.

We met our “tour guide” in a small hallway, who explained that she would get us in the gate and around the city, so stay close to her. A short walk brought us to the gates of the city, where Roman soldiers made sure we paid an appropriate tax to enter the city (a whole shekel per person!). Inside we followed our guide from place to place in Bethlehem. We went through a noisy market, stopped to visit people who made candles, baked bread, ran inns, sold fruit, made cloth and owned a home in Bethlehem. After we met some young men talking to a couple of priests, we met a carpenter who was being forced to make crosses and a blacksmith who had to make large nails. We finally met up with some shepherds who invited us to stay with them outside of the city, where we heard from an angel that the Christ had been born. When we got to the stable, we got to see a real live baby Jesus, surrounded by his mother and father and a cow and a donkey. After we heard the rest of the story, from the crucifixion to the resurrection of Jesus, we left Bethlehem, but not before grabbing a cooke and some hot chocolate.

We all enjoyed our visit to Bethlehem. I am impressed by and thankful for the hundreds of volunteers who make this happen each year. From those who play the parts to those who build and break down the sets to those who made sure we heard the gospel, this is a huge event. I appreciated how each stop on the journey added a piece to the puzzle of God’s Law, our sin, and the Christmas gift of salvation in the birth of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. I got to be a part of the Christmas story along with shepherds, priests, Pharisees, merchants, soldiers, children and tax collectors.

The journey seemed shorter than my previous experience. My grandson like the sheep, cow and donkey best of all, but did appreciate the real live baby Jesus, too. He elected not to have his picture taken with a Roman soldier. (Oh, and there was no camel; that must have been a different live nativity at another church.)

Afterwards, we estimated that it would take at least three hundred volunteers to make this happen. They must begin planning the summer before. And I’ll bet every single one loves being a part of this. If you are in the Daytona Beach area, I encourage you to stop by and “walk through” Bethlehem.

 

 

He knew we’d want to play with this.

IMG-7920I knew I’d be watching my two-year-old grandson Elijah for a few hours today while my daughter and wife did a little shopping. Before he arrived, I set out our little Playmobile nativity out on the porch.

From the moment he saw it he was delighted! He exclaimed, “This is perfect!” And then he picked up the baby from the manger and announced, “He’s awake!” He pointed out the donkey, camel, and sheep. Then, spotting the magi’s treasure chests, his eyes got big and he burst out with “Presents!” We got a full ninety minutes of play from this season’s first encounter with the cast of characters from Luke 2 and Matthew 2!

I believe our all-knowing Father knew that his children would delight in this hands-on telling and re-enactment of Christ’s birth. I can’t prove it, but I would contend he purposely chose the first-century, Roman empire, Bethlehem, virgin and carpenter setting because he knew it would capture our imagination, our hearts, and our souls.

I also believe it is therapeutic to sit and play with a nativity, preferably with kids. The holidays aren’t always the easiest times to navigate. You may be dealing with distance, death or divorce. There may be family conflicts, financial worries, unrealistic demands and unmet expectations, But when you sit down to play with a nativity, much of that fades behind the reminders of God’s promises, faithfulness, and presence. He shows up in the lives of real, ordinary people just like us, to walk us through guilt, sorrow, doubt, fear, pain, or whatever we’re dealing with.

That’s what it’s all about. Even a child knows that. I guess Jesus was right. You really need to be a child.

 

 

The nativity: it’s all ours.

screen-shot-2015-12-28-at-9-57-20-pm.pngAs I was tagging along with my wife, the day’s errands took us to Michael’s, a place filled with “arts and crafts, custom framing, home decor & seasonal products” and more than anything else: Christmas! Well over half the store was devoted to everything red, silver and gold on a green backdrop. According to the latest flyer, it’s all 50% off, too. You better get over there. And I mean now.

I started thinking about this thing called Christmas. This thing that has taken on a life of its own. This thing that now occupies two of the twelve months of the year. This thing that drives so much retail and online sales. This thing that we thought was a sacred holiday, but has long since been taken captive by our culture.

Church, I have sobering news for you. You are not going to get Christmas back. You’ve lost that battle. You’ve lost this culture war. There is nothing you can do to get Christ back in Christmas. It is now a fully secular event. You may participate in it, but it is not yours anymore.

But that’s OK. Really. Because we still have something. Something different. Something real. The nativity. That is still ours.

That’s the story. That’s the real story. And the world doesn’t want that. So it’s ours. It’s all ours.

So that’s what we’ll celebrate. That’s what we’ll proclaim. That’s the story we’ll tell. The nativity. That’s what you’ll hear me talk about. O, I like Christmas as much as the next guy. I’m in for trees, lights, songs, presents, cookies, snowmen, “Elf”, penguins, snow and fruitcake. But when it comes to church, we’re doing nativity. The festival of the nativity. The birth of the Savior, the King, the Christ.

That’s what you’ll be hearing me talk about. Not Christmas. Nativity.

Nativities are alive and well

nativity collageAs I wandered through a Ten Thousand Villages store in Harrisonburg, VA, I was struck by the number of nativities for sale, crafted by artisans from all over the world. Some were made of rocks, others had been formed from clay, and yet others crocheted. Some were tiny, no bigger than a golf ball. Others hang from mobiles. Some were designed to be Christmas tree ornaments. Others were meant to be handled and played with.

I was struck by the reality that in what is called a post-modern, post-Christian world, where we are told nones, atheists and the de-churched comprise a larger and larger portion of our nation, nativities are still in demand. There is still plenty of room among snowmen and Santas for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds with sheep, and wise men with gifts. I was fascinated and delighted to see that this form of the sacred has not been pushed out of view by the secular.

I believe we can learn something from this. While it’s rarely productive to ram Jesus down people’s throats with threats of eternal damnation, it’s not so hard to slip him into craft fairs, holiday displays, and winter festivals. This is probably why Jesus didn’t come on the clouds with power the first time around. He came as a baby, slipped into the world virtually unnoticed, and found a place in a hostile environment.

That’s the seed we plant and water at this time of the year. God handles the growth.