Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Carol 2009

A Christmas carol (also called a noël) is a carol (song or hymn) whose lyrics are on the theme of Christmas or the winter season in general and which are traditionally sung in the period before Christmas. Christmas carols can focus on the birth of Christ, or on secular themes. (

Although Mr. Wikipedia gives us a good definition of "Christmas carol" above. What I want to share with you is a more "Dickensian" Christmas carol. Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol: In Prose. Being a Ghost Story about Christmas" in 1843 as an indictment against industrial capitalism, its excesses and neglect. I believe the story continues to be popular today because of its enduring message, continually calling modern humankind away from the precipice of greed and selfishness and towards the hope of joy and giving.

My Christmas carol will be a bit briefer and more pointed. I spent 2009 in the midst of a great test. Not an intentional test mind you, but a test nevertheless. I spent the year testing the boundaries of love. Love for students, love for friends, love for family and love for God. As a theologian / pastor it is easy to talk about love - in this instance, agape - but it is a whole different matter to live it.

Yes, I know what phileo, storge and eros are: affectionate, brotherly love; parental love and physical love. But agape is something very different. Agape is unconditional. We can derive personal pleasure from the expression of the first three types of 'other' focused attitudes (let me use the word 'attitudes' in place of the word love - in English language cultures the word love has become so abused that I think it is important to express it another way!) and so we become conditioned to satisfying that need for acceptance, happiness and physical pleasure under the general rubric of love.

But that is not agape. Agape is not necessarily an individually pleasurable attitude. Agape is absolutely other-centered. It has nothing to do with your own personal pleasure. It is an attitude that is completely focused on the well-being of the other. It is an attitude that is impossible to sustain or even comprehend in our own fallen condition. Indeed, a human being can only embody agape once they have embraced God; for God is the embodiment of agape. It is God working in and through us that enables us to be bearers of agape. We cannot do it on our own. We are simply too messed up - rooted deeply in our sinful selves. We cannot do selfless acts - we always, always expect something in return whether it be a "thank you" or a smile or like act in kind. I say that honestly, because when we attempt selfless acts and are not in some way appreciated for that act, we feel hurt or unappreciated. Worse yet, if we are chided or disparaged for the selfless act, we respond with bitterness and withdraw into ourselves.

So this year I have learned... When you enter into a life of agape, you only do so by sharing in the life of God and God was crucified for His love. The world could not bear the selflessness. Even confessing Christians practice a half-way agape. We want to love unconditionally until it costs us something. In other words, we like the resurrection part of our faith, but don't really care for, and even try to avoid at all costs the crucifixion part. Sadly, you can't have one without the other. The New Testament is replete with admonitions to "take up your cross" or "being crucified with Christ" or take the "narrow way" or "give your life for your brother"or "whoever leaves father, mother, children" will inherit eternal life...

As Americans or even as English-speaking Christians, we are prone to this "half-way" agape. Our materialistic, greedy, consumerist, pride-filled culture has ensured that we will always struggle with agape. We sing the old hymn, "O' How I love Jesus" but when push comes to shove, we try harder than ever to defend our "half-way" agape and even turn our backs on agape, when 'our' lives, 'our' lifestyles and 'our' choices are threatened.

Now I am no saint. Whatever goodness there is in me is Christ's doing. I've learned this truth the hard way this year. My constant prayer now, right now, is that God will strengthen me to be a vessel of His love and that I could love unconditionally - always. That is my prayer for you, my reader as well. I've tasted crucifixion several times this year and the pain is excruciating. The earliest Christians knew that crucifixion was part of the reality of following Christ and it was a cost they were prepared to pay. They knew that extravagant love required extravagant sacrifice.

Because of what I have gone through this year, I understand a bit better God's desire for this life. This Christmas, as I watched my daughters and wife unwrap presents, I could not stop thinking about 'the Gift' God gave to us so many thousands of years ago. The baby in the manger is the very gift of God's agape. And so I embrace a theology of the cradle. Yet, we will not see the extent of that love until we embrace the cross as well. You and I want to remain at the manger, with all of its joy, hope and possibility. But true love - agape - can only be found when we take up the cross and love people without condition or reserve, just as Christ loves us. Make 2010 the year of agape; for only agape will change our world.

Truly a Merry Christmas to all of you.

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