When religion leaves faith behind

(Photo by Pete Bannan)

Many people today categorize themselves as spiritual but not religious. What I hear them saying is they believe in God and spirituality, but many forms of religion these days take them the opposite way.

Many practices of religion get in the way of living in a truly loving, spiritual way, and people feel forced to choose between faith and religion. It’s good to remind ourselves that the two are not the same.

Let’s define faith as the Spirit in which we’re made to live; the love from which and for which we are created; the values embedded in the foundation of our spirituality.

Faith centers us in the truth that we love God by loving all our neighbors as ourselves, caring for those who are struggling, seeing the image of the creator equally in every person, following the call to work for justice.

Religion is how we put that Spirit and those values into practice. It’s supposed to be the expression and implementation of those values in our individual and collective lives; sadly, it often is not.

As we know, religion easily gets detached from the faith in which it’s meant to be grounded. It rejects the Spirit and values it’s supposed to embody, choosing to go a different way.

Making religion align with faith

We don’t need to look hard for examples: culture wars, holy wars, crusades, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, Nazi extermination camps, white churchgoers firebombing Black churches, KKK crosses lit in Jesus’ name, Capitol rioters carrying Bibles and rosaries.

Religion gets reduced to theological propositions about who’s in and who’s out, who deserves unconditional love, who should be attacked. Religion is turned into a wall, a weapon, a rejection of not only God’s children but the God who created them in the multiplicity of the divine image and likeness.

Prophets of all ages and all religions call people back to the foundation of their faith when religious expression becomes unmoored and needs to repent and change.

Jesus embodied this prophetic tradition. He called out those who turned religion into rejection. He felt a harsh backlash from those intent upon defending their religion at the expense of their faith.

He reminded the religiously observant that faith isn’t about following rules and laws and theologies; instead, love and love alone fulfills all that God seeks from us.

That is our faith. That also should be our religion.

We’re imperfect people, so our faith and our religion will always be an imperfect match. That’s a given. But we’re called to be vigilant in seeing how we can make our religion align more closely with our faith.

New ways of being faithful

Our prophetic role is to challenge religious expressions – including our own – that pull us away from faith toward something else: power, control, self-importance, domination, ego, judgement, privilege, bullying, ostracizing, self-aggrandizing, rejection, and fighting.

The letter attributed to James reminds us that if our religion doesn’t put our faith into practice, it’s thoroughly lifeless. Or, to paraphrase Paul, religion that’s lacking in love amounts to nothing more than noise. It leads nowhere.

Any religion separated from faith is going to wither and die – and it should. We see this happening in so many expressions of religion today. It’s a necessary step. These forms of religious expression are withering away so something more faithful can be reborn in their place – the cycle of death and resurrection.

There’s the marvelous line in the gospel of Luke about leaving the spiritually dead to bury their dead. We’re at that moment. Leave those deadened by these forms of religion to bury them.

Instead, let faith inspire yet another time of reforming in ways both old and new — new ways for this old faith to thrive, new places to offer healing and discovery and growth, new gatherings where we can be comforted and challenged and transformed.

New ways of being faithful.

Our work of making peace

We drove through a small town that has a quaint public square. A large war monument dominates – a cannon with plaques recording the names of town residents who died in far-away wars.

That’s all there was about the town’s history.

No mention of the town’s founders; or the first town doctor who visited sick children in the middle of the night; or those who started the town’s first school; or the wise and compassionate leaders who helped the town through its many challenging times.

War was remembered and monumentalized. Only war.

The town is typical of other small communities and big cities across our society and our world. There are many monuments to war. Wars and warriors get the pedestals and parades.

What about the makers of peace? Those who save countless lives by leading us away from conflict?

One of my favorite monuments to a maker of peace is in downtown Pittsburgh. Across the river from Fort Pitt – a place of war – is a statue of Mister Rogers.

Fred Rogers once said: “Peace means far more than the opposite of war.” It’s a spirit, a work, a way of life that we’re called to follow.

Our faith reminds us we’re called to be makers of peace. “Peace on Earth” is more than a feel-good verse; it’s the work given to us. It’s challenging and unpopular and counter-cultural work, but it’s our work.

Making peace means more than hoping and praying and wishing for peace. We must actively challenge attitudes about war and peace, reminding everyone we’re meant to love each other as siblings in God’s family instead of fighting one another out of self-interest.

Unpopular work, but it’s our work

War is the ultimate human failure: God’s children killing each other over land, religion, power, influence, wealth, supremacy. We destroy each other, what we’ve built together, and what God has created.

War must never be glamorized or romanticized. Instead, we need to lead our societies another way as makers and promoters of peace.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they understand what it means to live and children of God.

Making peace involves building and nurturing mutually beneficial relationship, which is the heart of our faith traditions and our scriptures. We’re called to put selfishness aside and find ways to meet others’ needs for food, housing, healing, and spiritual uplift. We do this not only in our collective relationships but in our individual ones as well.

Making peace involves a willingness to do the hard and unpopular work of changing attitudes and showing people that we can and must get along. It entails working for justice for all God’s children.

We need peace on our pedestals.

Creating peace requires listening, honesty, trustworthiness, and justice. It’s about seeing everyone’s needs as equally important to my own – love your neighbor as yourself.

Peace on our pedestals

Again, this isn’t popular work – never has been, never will be. Many “religious” people have rejected the summons to be peacemakers and instead embraced the us-against-them warrior mentality that we see raging in our society right now.

Wars never just happen. They’re the accumulation of many smaller moments of injustice and selfishness. And they always result from demagogues riling people up for combat, insisting they must attack others before they themselves are attacked.

Demagogues excuse themselves from any actual sacrifices, increase their power in the fog of war, then put themselves on pedestals as great warriors to be emulated.

And war follows war follows war …

We’ll always have war – it’s who we are as humans, one of our original sins – but we can and must create conditions for a more just, humane, equitable, and peaceful world. We can and must create more peace in our individual lives.

This is the work given to us. It’s our calling. May we be makers of peace in how we live and interact with one another. May we work for the justice and mutuality that create conditions for all God’s children to live together as we’re meant.

(Image courtesy of uwgbadmissions@creativecommons.org)

Body count in the culture war

And the body count mounts in our culture wars.

The godsend of a vaccine took our nation from 4,000 Covid deaths daily in January to under 100 in July. It’s back above 1,000 again and climbing fast as the virus races unchecked through the unvaccinated.

Consider: 1,000 precious lives lost every day because people have been convinced their lives are nothing more than fodder in someone’s culture war.

I used to wonder how in heaven’s name Jim Jones got his “Christian” cult members to feed poison to their children – their children! — and then drink it themselves, leaving 918 dead. Or how “religious” leaders convinced devotees to blow up their bodies and end the sacred lives of those around them, too.

Now we know. We watch it in our society day after day.

Political, social, religious, and media figures declare a culture war and rouse their constituents, congregations and viewers to engage in a fight to the death – their own death. They see their followers’ lives as nothing more than collateral damage.

And for what purpose? So the warmongers can amass yet more power, influence and money. They lust for better ratings, more votes, fuller collection plates, and more sway over their masses.

Treating precious lives as collateral damage

The “religious” war mongers trouble me the most. Preaching that “true believers” won’t get sick spreads death and misery among the people they’re supposed to love and nurture.

The various warmongers have one thing in common. They know people will react strongly if they’re made to feel they’re under attack from someone or something, and whether it’s true doesn’t matter. Truth is always the first casualty of war, including culture wars.

Of course, they never actually enjoin the battle themselves. Other people wind up on ventilators, not them. They’re vaccinated and out of harm’s way, with access to treatments their followers can’t get. They want to benefit from the war, not die in it.

And so we see people drink the poison and pledge allegiance to a lethal denial:

  • Denial that vaccines work.
  • Denial that life matters — their lives and the lives of everyone around them.
  • Denial that the doctors and nurses who have already saved their lives countless times are trying to do it again.
  • Denial that we have responsibility to love one another.

And the body count mounts.

I’m out of words for it, but one theological term comes to mind: evil.

Evil us using our free will to harm ourselves and others by making choices that devalue life. It’s rejecting the gift of life-saving medicine. It’s demonizing medical professionals who put their lives on the line daily to keep God’s breath stirring inside Covid-ravaged lungs.

Faith redeems and reconciles cultures through love

Remember that Jesus emphatically rejected the culture war mentality. He invited everyone – especially those who were targets of the culture warriors — to join his movement of truth and love and healing. Put down those swords.

Real faith is counter-cultural that way. It seeks not to incite wars within cultures but to redeem and reconcile cultures through love. It counters lies with the truth that we’re all God’s children and have a responsibility to love and look out for one another.

We know the warmongers won’t call a truce. The pandemic has been a goldmine for them, and they have no intention of stopping even as the bodies pile up. They’ll fight over medicine, masks, vaccines — anything they can conscript into their war — for as long as long as they can.

It’s up to everyone else to reject the poison and stop turning sacred life into collateral damage. More than 1,000 lives are being snuffed out each day in our society alone – more every day than died in Jim Jones’ mass suicide.

No more. No more drinking from the cup of poison. No more sharing lies that produce Covid-scarred lungs incapable of embracing God’s breath. No more devaluing life in the name of winning someone’s ungodly war.

(Image courtesy of Ben.Harper @CreativeCommons.org)

Freedom to serve, liberty to love

Liberty. Independence. Freedom. We heard those words mentioned this past weekend. But often, something vital was left out of the conversation.

While freedom matters greatly – it’s a divine gift and individual right – how we use our freedom is the measure of our faith and our lives. Our independence must be grounded within our interdependence.

Our culture promotes the myth of the self-made person, though nobody ever is. We’re lectured to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be responsible for ourselves alone. We’re told that God helps those who help themselves – words preached not by Jesus but by Benjamin Franklin.

We worship zealous individualism: Don’t tread on me or limit my rights for any reason. I’m free to do anything I want regardless how it affects anyone or anything else. The person bleeding by the side of the road isn’t my concern.

Our faith presents an opposite way of living. It centers the “me” within the “we”, places the “I” within the “us”, locates our individuality within our mutuality.

When we lose that focus, we end up in very dark places. Look at us now! In a society with so much, we have so little joy and peace. Instead, we overflow with anger, hate, disillusionment, lying, divisiveness and unhappiness.

Mother Teresa reminds us that if we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

And we often forget. It’s a tale as old as time.

Consider Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminding them that their ongoing problems — hostilities, bickering, jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, and envy – are the result of forgetting their interconnectedness. It was true then, and now.

You end up in mutual destruction

“Remember that you have been called to live in freedom – but not a freedom that gives free rein” to selfish living, Paul says. “Out of love, place yourselves at one another’s service. The whole law has found its fulfillment in this one saying: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

“If you go on biting and tearing one another to pieces, take care! You will end up in mutual destruction.”

It’s important to work for justice so all God’s children may have the freedom they deserve. But it’s equally important to remind ourselves that freedom isn’t meant to be used only for ourselves.

When we use our liberty selfishly, we put ourselves in a prison. Our egos, our fears, our self-absorption become the bars to our individual cells. Our lives become very small, narrow, and unfulfilling.

By contrast, love liberates us – love and love alone.

We’re liberated when we recognize that yes, I am a child of God, but I’m not the only child; I’m part of God’s family where everyone is loved equally and must be treated with dignity and respect and compassion. And yes, we‘re part of an incredible creation, but we’re not the only part of creation that matters.

Love liberates us

Jesus invites us into this way of living – help the person bleeding by the side of the road, care for the needy, heal the hurting, love everyone the same way you love yourself, be compassionate and connected.

We can experience life in abundance when we ground ourselves within God’s inescapable web of creation. We’re fulfilled by joy, peace and love when we live within this Spirit of mutuality.

We experience God and our true selves when we use our freedom to serve and our liberty to love.

(Image courtesy of CrittentonSoCal @ creativecommons.org)

Shamrocks, triangles, and our many-ness

Trinity Sunday was never one of my favorites growing up. We’d hear references to shamrocks and triangles and the nature of God, and I’d wonder: What do any of these theological lessons have to do with me?

 Well, everything, actually!

 Trinity Sunday – celebrated a few days ago – is one of my favorites now, a necessary reminder of who we are, whose we are, and how we’re meant to live together amid our differences. 

The lesson of many-yet-one starts with the truth that the diversity around us and within us is a sacred reflection of our Creator. Each of us is a beautiful piece in a masterful mosaic, one moving body out of many in this collective dance of life.

What holds it all together? Love, of course.

Loving relationship is the glue that centers everything in its perfect place, the thread that binds us snugly together, the gravity that prevents our heavenly bodies from drifting apart. It’s been that way from the start.

Our faith tradition begins with the poetic lesson that diversity is at the heart of the divine nature Itself. God says let us create in our image and likeness. Plurality, not singularity. And it’s all good!

Thus, we get not just one kind of tree, but many. Not just one type of fish or bird or forest or mountain or planet or … you name it. There are countless versions of everything, each uniquely radiating the same divine image.

Plurality, not singularity

So, too, for us humans. There’s great diversity within our human family. Each unique face is another sacred reflection of our multifaceted Maker.

And it all coalesces around love.

In John’s description of the last supper, Jesus prays to God that we, his beloved friends – we the many, we the different – may be one as they are one, living within and through each other. That oneness forms from our many-ness when love is present.

When there’s love, there’s no need for division or suspicion or competition or recrimination or insecurity or fear or privilege or superiority or violence or partisanship.

As we’re reminded, love drives out fear. Relationship grounded in love recognizes diversity as a blessing rather than a threat. It seeks to work with the other for the common good.

Our diversity leads us to our God.

Of course, we’ll never have the depth of love that eliminates all fear and competition and insecurity – not on this side of heaven, anyway. But our call is to work at building and nurturing such relationship in our lives and our societies.

Diversity at the heart of the divine

This work starts by recognizing we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., puts it so beautifully. Our many, varied relationships with God, one other, and nature are intertwined. They can’t be teased apart or separated.

What we do in one relationship affects all.

And, yes, it’s very hard work! We are hard-wired to gravitate toward the familiar and the similar. But the wisdom of trinity challenges us to open ourselves to that which is different and to see God present within people, places and encounters that might seem foreign or even frightening on the surface.

Unfortunately, some forms of religion lead us away from this wisdom. They seek to create “culture wars” among God’s equally beloved children and reject the diversity woven into our very nature.

Our refusal to recognize God’s presence within our diversity causes much of the division, fear, mistrust, hatred, and deep unhappiness in our world. If we can’t accept our many-ness, we’ll never know the oneness of Spirit for which we are made.

 Trinity reminds us of this foundational truth and invites us into this loving relationship.

(Photo courtesy of jmccarthy99@creativecommons.org)

Gardeners, not gods

Writers, artists and composers love the garden of Eden story because it works on so many levels and gets to the heart of who we are as humans. The story isn’t about disobedience as much as broken relationships – with each other, with nature, and with God.

The creation stories remind us we’re made from relationship and for relationship. We’re fashioned within a trinity of relationships — with God, with each other, with nature.

Those relationships are interwoven. If one suffers, they all suffer. Everything unravels quickly if we’re ignoring one area of relationship.

We experience that so profoundly in our world today. Our “original sin” or fundamental failure is refusing to center ourselves within the nurturing relationships that are essential if we’re to be happy, peaceful and fulfilled.

Without nurturing relationship, we never experience love.

Made from relationship, for relationship

The parable of the garden of Eden reminds us of who we are, whose we are, and how we are meant to live in harmony. The story places us in the role of gardener, not the garden owner. We’re meant to “cultivate and care for” God’s creation.

It nurtures us, and we nurture it. God is inviting us to become partners in this holy, ongoing work. And the story warns that if we choose not to accept the role and instead focus only on ourselves, we are “doomed to die.”

Of course, the humans in the story aren’t satisfied with the role of cultivator and co-creator. They decide they’d rather assign themselves the role of God – well, their self-indulgent version of a god, anyway – and do whatever they wish.

They delude themselves into thinking the garden belongs to them.

Once their relationship with creation begins to go awry because of their choices, so do all their other relationships. Their relationship with each other quickly degenerates into pointing fingers and assigning blame. They try to hide from God.

Every relationship quickly breaks down. Ultimately, they’re not so much driven from the garden as they’ve chosen to leave it by placing greed and self-interest above the garden and all within it.

I wish we could say that religion helps us refocus and re-center ourselves in the truth of relationship, but we all know that’s often not the case. It has too often been used to divide rather than reconcile.

A web of interwoven relationships

Instead of calling us back to our roles of gardener and lovers, religion has been turned into a weapon for cultural, religious and political wars. Loving relationship has been rejected for power and self-importance. The original sin is repeated.

Sadly, religion also gets misused as approval to rape, pillage and desecrate God’s sacred creation. Some “religious” people insist they can do whatever they want to nature because they, as humans, are all that matter.

Destruction and self-destruction result from this horrid theology.

Last week, we celebrated Earth Day, a reminder of our interwoven relationships with all God’s creation. We need reminders of our call to be in nurturing, loving relationship with nature, one another, and God.

Our faith reminds us that we’re not gods but gardeners. There’s a lot of restorative work to be done. It’s time to get our fingers dirty.

Newborns, faith and sacrificial love

When our son was born, a nurse checked his health, washed him, wrapped him in a blanket, and put a little stocking cap on his head to keep him warm. Then, she handed him to us.

In that moment, I felt an overpowering sense of love unlike anything I’d experienced. I knew in that moment I would give my life for this child I’d just met.

Two years later when our daughter was born, I felt the same overwhelming love again. I would make any necessary sacrifice for her, including my life.

Those moments taught me powerfully about sacrificial love.

Our faith reminds us that God has that same love for us, and we need to have such love for one another, readily sacrificing to meet others’ needs. It’s the core of the gospel – the good news – and one of the most challenging parts.

And, perhaps, the most rejected part as well.

Loving others in a sacrificial way

Jesus’ unequivocal message is we’re meant to love others in a sacrificial way, including the stranger, the person who is different, even the ones we consider our enemies. It’s a difficult challenge. We all struggle with this.

Too often, we miss opportunities to love sacrificially because we’re counting the cost, fearing repercussions, or doing a cost analysis of whether what we sacrifice is worth whatever return we can envision.

We forget that God’s love works without an accounting system. We receive grace with a lavish generosity that we might consider extravagant and wasteful. And we’re invited to love the same way.

We’re all aware that over the centuries, many Christians have rejected the call to live in sacrificial love. Instead, they sought to carve out privilege and comfort for themselves by forcing others to conform to their beliefs and lifestyles.

Today, there’s an Americanized version of Christianity that rejects sacrificial love. Instead, it preaches that everyone else should sacrifice and conform to whatever makes these Christians happy – saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” for instance.

This version of Christianity demands “religious liberty” to discriminate against anyone who believes differently. However, no one is allowed to discriminate against Christians or inconvenience them in any way.

It also promotes an unholy individualism that absolves Christians from making even simple accommodations to care for their neighbors, such as wearing a mask during a pandemic to save others’ health and lives.

Christianity without a cross, religion without love

Some Christian leaders promote a theology that says Jesus sacrificed for them, so they are absolved from having to make sacrifices for others.

It’s Christianity without a cross, religion without love for all God’s children. And it’s no surprise that many spiritual people have fled this version of religion.

Jesus lived, preached, and encouraged us to sacrifice our lives each day in many ways. He reminded us that whoever holds tightly to their life — refusing to sacrifice — will lose out on life, but whoever chooses sacrifice as their way of life shall live deeply and abundantly.

Real faith involves a daily commitment to sacrifice our ego, our self-interest, our time, our resources, our privilege, our comfort, our closed-mindedness, our indifference, our self-absorbed theologies so we can love more extravagantly. It involves serving all God’s children without exception.

Daily, we’re presented with the choice of living in a spirit of entitlement or in a Spirit of sacrificial love that draws us closer to the God who cradles us like newborns and reminds us we are worthy of any sacrifice.

And so is everyone else.

(Photo courtesy of Jason Pratt @creativecommons.org)

The price of living passionately

In 2004, Mel Gibson directed a film called “The Passion of the Christ.” Perhaps you’re familiar with it. The movie focuses on Jesus’ final hours, depicting his death in gruesome detail.

The rest of his life is mostly edited out.

Some of us were raised in traditions that focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ suffering and death – referred to as his passion – while skipping what he was passionate about. The lessons he taught, the love he embodied, the relationships he established are relegated to verses recited on Sunday but relegated to the cutting floor the rest of the time.

The truth is that Jesus’ suffering and death weren’t his passion; they were the price he paid for his passion. And there’s a lesson in this story for all of us about living with the same passion.

He was passionate about healing and reconciliation, not only us to God but to one another as well. He passionately announced, embodied and created a sacred space where everyone is welcomed and treated as the beloved child of God that they are.

This alternate kingdom was the antithesis of Caesar’s kingdom, then and now.

The price for living passionately

He preached about God’s deep passion for the needy, the struggling, the oppressed – woe to the rich, blessed are the poor, the least are the greatest, help anyone who is bleeding by the side of the road. He made whole again anyone who came to him for healing.

And justice – he was deeply passionate about justice.

Gospel stories describe him staging a provocative Palm Sunday procession that confronts Caesar’s values of power, wealth, dominance, violence, and militarism.

He was passionately prophetic by overturning the tables of those who misuse religion – then and now – to amass power, preserve the status quo, and ignore the needs of those they are supposed to serve.

This was his passion. He lived it. He paid a price for it. And he invites us – no matter what faith or religious background — to do the same and live in a passionate way that challenges the status quo and heals the world. He challenges us to put our passionate lives on the line for those who are being trampled by the many opportunistic political and religious leaders of our world.

Each of us can, in our own unique way, bring love, healing, reconciliation, restoration and resurrection to our world, our society, our relationships. We’re forced to choose between between living passionately or playing it safe and never truly living at all, which is an even greater price to pay.

Jesus knew there would be a cost for his passion– there always is. He lived it anyway. May we, too, live passionate lives sustained by transformative love and daily resurrection.

The sacred invitation to dive in

My family rented a cottage near a lake each summer when I was a boy. After lunch each day, we’d walk down a road to the lake, peel off our shirts, kick off our flipflops and head for our assigned dock, ready to dive in.

The cold water jolted you the first time you went in. Usually, I needed time – and encouragement from those already in the water – to dive in.

Once wet, I didn’t want to get out.

That dock is a good metaphor for faith.

The Scriptures, traditions and liturgies of our various faiths are a platform to dive into the mystery, the presence, and the deep love of God. The platform always points us beyond itself.

Our faith isn’t about the dock, but where the dock wants to take us. Unfortunately, we can get so attached to the dock that we never dive from it. We never get wet.

Where the dock leads us

Instead, we stand on dock and speculate about the water below. We develop theological terms for the water and argue over which ones are most accurate.

Worse, we fall into the trap of fighting over who’s allowed on the dock and which diving forms are acceptable. Self-appointed guardians try to control access to the dock and reject anyone who doesn’t meet their criteria.

This is one main reason many people are turned off by organized religion – lots of standing around and arguing on the dock, not much actual swimming.

If you’re never going to get wet, what’s the point?

Jesus experienced the same thing. The self-appointed dock guardians of his time tried to keep certain people away – Samaritans, women, children, Gentiles, lepers, tax collectors, anyone who was different from them.

He ignored them, immersed himself in the water and invited others to join. If they were barred from the dock, he told them to wade in from the shore.

People recognized that unlike those who never left the dock, Jesus spoke with authority about the water. He was dripping wet! He swam the depths, experienced the currents, enjoyed the water’s delights.

He shared his experience of the water in such a way that others wanted to dive in, too. He spoke of living water available to everyone. Unlike the bone-dry people who never left the dock, he knew the water.

Everyone into the water

And he told us what it means to dive in.

See someone hungry? Dive into the moment and feed them.

Someone hurting? Dive into the situation and do something to help them heal.

See the injustice of someone being barred from the dock? Offer them a full and unencumbered path into the water.

See someone afraid of the water? Reach out a hand and offer to help them slowly wade in.

Swimming in this water means looking at ourselves, at others and the world through God’s eyes. We plunge into this water, and everything changes.

It doesn’t matter how we get into the water, only that we get wet. Once there, we let the living water comfort us, hold us, refresh us, and wrap us in its love.

And invite everyone else to swim with us, too.

Found by Christmas

As the clock approached midnight on Christmas eve, we’d gird ourselves for the one-block walk to church on a cold Cleveland night.

Burrowed into our coats, we’d wrestle galoshes over our shoes and head into the wintry night. The air was cold and dead, the sky clouded and lifeless. The night air was frigidly silent.

There, at the end of the block, was our church, fully illuminated for a midnight service. Light streamed through the stained-glass windows, a colorful beacon in the darkness.

Drawing closer with each step, we’d hear the choir filling the night air with beautiful song. We’d start waking faster toward it.

Arriving at church, we’d pull open the old, wooden door and warmth would wash over us and provide a shiver of comfort and joy. The church was decorated with pine trees, and that wonderful smell – mixed with incense – greeted our cold noses.

In the midst of all the darkness and stillness and emptiness, Christmas had found me again.

The church was filled with immigrants who were missing people and places and parts of their former life in what they called the old country. On this night, they felt the ache of separation and the loss of what had been.

The familiar words and hymns brought them comfort and joy. Christmas found them, too.

 I’m guessing we all can identify with those immigrants in some ways tonight.

Because of Covid-19, this Christmas eve is unlike any we’ve known. We’re separated from loved ones and missing parts of the life we once knew.

We can all identify

And yet, Christmas comes for us tonight just as it did for those immigrants huddled in the church. Just as it has for nearly 2,000 years no matter the circumstances – pestilence, war, depression.

Christmas meets us where we are and reminds us who we are. In beautiful and familiar words, it tells us again what’s real and true in our lives. It tells us of our worth and our life’s work.

Christmas reminds us of a love embodied not only in a baby but in each of us as well. An incarnate love that seeks to reconcile us and the world through each of us.

A love that gives us purpose and meaning. A love that will always have the last word.

Covid-19 won’t get the last word. Nor will our sad refusal to deal with it. Nor will hatred or fear or divisiveness or anything other than love. That’s the reassurance of Christmas: We are saved from and safe from all those things.

We’re saved from everything that isn’t love. Saved from even death itself, which cannot break any bond of love.

For God so loves the world.

So, let there be joy in the world!

Let us be warmed by that great light in our darkness. Let’s hear the joyful music in the air and breathe in deeply that sweet scent of Christmas all over again.

Tidings of comfort and joy. Let nothing you dismay! Love and joy come to you. Chains shall be broken, all oppression shall cease. Go tell it on the mountain.

Come one and all, joyful and triumphant.

Triumphant!

Reminds us who we are

We’d sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” at the end of our Christmas eve service each year. Then, we’d bundle up and head back out into the cold for the walk home.

Only now, the cold had lost its bite. Those wonderful, sweet smells of Christmas lingered in our noses. And the beautiful music hung in the air and in our hearts, just as it has every year for centuries.

No matter where you are or what you’re feeling tonight, remember to listen for the music. It’s in the air, inviting us to sing along.

(Image courtesy of Adam Cohn https://www.flickr.com/photos/96142515@N00/37146385212)