Author Topic: Christmas Columns  (Read 682 times)

Charles Austin

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Christmas Columns
« on: November 23, 2018, 10:15:54 PM »
My Christmas column for The Record, Hackensack, New Jersey. First printed a long time ago, often reprinted. And a place for the "Pastor's Page" from Advent/Christmas church newsletters.
Retired ELCA pastor. Iowa born. Now in Minnesota. Twice-vaccinated.

Charles Austin

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Re: Christmas Columns
« Reply #1 on: November 23, 2018, 10:21:38 PM »
ATTENDING CHURCH AT CHRISTMAS? REST ASSURED, YOU ARE WELCOME!
By Charles Austin       
(This column first appeared in The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey. It has been reprinted several times and in several places.)

   You are welcome, and yes, we know who you are. From where I stand in the pulpit, you are more than welcome.
   You are the Christmas churchgoer. Maybe you slip into the rear pews. Maybe  you make some nervous joke shaking hands with us as you leave. Maybe you say your name somewhat sheepishly when we ask "Do I know you?" after the services. Maybe you try to avoid us. But believe me when I say you are welcome in church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You may get a few disapproving glances from the regulars, who are there nearly every Sunday. You may have to suffer the sharp edge that surrounds their greeting like the prickles of holly on a Christmas wreath.
   Forget about all that. Let me tell you what your presence at the Christmas service means.
   It means that you have not abandoned your faith. Perhaps you feel alienated from your church or have doubts about its teachings. Perhaps the bustle of modern life has kept you from being "as faithful as you ought to be," to use the trite phrase.
   When I see you in church on Christmas Eve, my heart is glad because I know that something in you still cares about your faith. You may not be active in the way that I would prefer, but spirituality is still a part of your life, and in these days of widespread skepticism, that is enough. At least it is a start.
   It also means that the great stories of our faith still have the power to draw you into their mysteries. Sunday after Sunday, we clergy preach these stories, sometimes to what appear to be uncomprehending congregations. But at Christmas, you and everyone else there, perhaps you more than the others, seem moved and touched by the stories that are the foundation of our faith.
   Your presence in church on Christmas tells me the faith survives where it is needed most, in the lives of ordinary people, people who make the effort to be in church, people who still feel drawn into the special wonder of faith that is manifest this season. As long as I see you there at a time like this, I believe you are open to having God with you at other times.
   We understand what you are going through as you enter the church on Christmas. Let me tell you a secret. Pastors, priests, and ministers also wonder whether "we ought to be here," whether we have any business dealing with such sublime matters of spirituality or eternity. The truth is that none of us, whether we lead the worship or whether we show up only on Christmas, has the right to stand before God this way. That we can do so at all is God's gift to us.
   So sing the carols, hear the stories, bask in the sights and smells of the season. You are welcome. And even if your own faith seems shaky, your presence means it hasn't collapsed. That makes you important, for you are a sign that faith survives.
     -0-
Retired ELCA pastor. Iowa born. Now in Minnesota. Twice-vaccinated.

Charles Austin

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Re: Christmas Columns
« Reply #2 on: November 23, 2018, 10:30:13 PM »
And one more...
We Need More Bells:
The Christmas Sound That Tells Us Everything Will Be All Right
By Charles Austin
     We need more bells on Christmas day.
     Most churches no longer have tall towers with powerful bells whose ringing drew the attention of the whole community. Roman Catholics heard the Angelus bell, calling them to prayer three times a day. Protestants heard the bells ringing before church started, the tolling before a funeral or in more recent times, electronic carillons sending hymns out over their neighborhoods.
     The bells were so that all could hear from the tall steeples the prodding towards prayer or daily reminders of faith. Today the bells we hear as Christmas nears ring up sales at the mall and the melodies from the loudspeakers are not hymns, but pop tunes warbled by country-western singers or the latest teen sensation.
     At his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard the bells on Christmas day, 1863, and wrote a poem that has become a beloved Christmas song, one that was not a hymn, but with a deeper meaning than most of the things that reach our ears in the mall.
          I heard the bells on Christmas Day
          Their old familiar carols play,
          And wild and sweet the words repeat
          Of peace on earth, good will to men.
     A month before he wrote this, Longfellow learned that his son had been seriously wounded in the fighting in the South. Furthermore, since 1861, Longfellow had been mourning this wife, who died in a terrible fire, leaving him so distraught he felt he could no longer write poetry and thought he was going insane. Inspired by the bells that Christmas Day, he wrote more.
           I thought how, as the day had come,
           The belfries of all Christendom
           Had rolled along the unbroken song
           Of peace on earth, good will to men.
   Still, he could not get the on-going war and his wounded son out of his mind, so he wrote these verses, two of them not sung today.
           Then from each black, accursed mouth
           The cannon thundered in the South,
           And with the sound the carols drowned
           Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

           It was as if an earthquake rent
          The hearth-stones of a continent,
          And made forlorn the households born
          Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

         And in despair I bowed my head:
         "There is no peace on earth," I said,
         "For hate is strong and mocks the song
         Of peace on earth, good will to men."
The Christmas bells continued to ring as if in answer to his sorrow and their carols brought the poet out of his despair with this triumphal verse.
          Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
          "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
          The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
          With peace on earth, good will to men."

          Till, ringing singing, on its way,
          The world revolved from night to day,
          A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
          Of peace on earth, good will to men!

     We need to hear more bells. But lacking the antique bells of long ago as heralds of that peaceful message, perhaps we could train ourselves to hear even the pop tunes and secular carols as reminders that this season is a time when, although “peace on earth good will to all” might not cover the world; it can be present and indeed is present so long as we sing about it and let even a small measure of peace on earth and good will into our lives.
      -0-
•   
Retired ELCA pastor. Iowa born. Now in Minnesota. Twice-vaccinated.

J. Thomas Shelley

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Re: Christmas Columns
« Reply #3 on: November 23, 2018, 11:44:42 PM »
This one is much more Advent than Christmas, but as liturgical West enters the Year of Luke's Gospel there might be some nuggets to be gleaned from this column penned in 2003:

Wintry Signs

Late autumn brings many conversations conjecturing the severity of the winter soon at hand, discussions that are as inevitable as the falling of the final oak leaves.  If the conversations have been more energetic this year than most, it is because the November weather has been charged with energy that is alternately tropical, then polar.

All Saints’ Sunday was bathed in record warmth; the procession to the old Cemetery greeted with temperatures more suited for May than November.  Yet one week later the region was engripped with record cold; then buffeted by record winds equal to those delivered by tropical storm Isabel.

All of this fuels the unavoidable speculation over the months ahead.  Does the record warmth portend a January blizzard, as happened in the winter of 1995-1996?   Does the “inverse predictive”  some believe associated with the cross-quarter days of early November mean that the winter shall be cold and wet?

The indicators of nature only further complicate matters.  Corn husks are loose and black walnuts are scarce, usually signs of a milder winter;  yet hornets’  nests have been seen “low” and “high” (define that, please!).

And no natural “forecaster” is more shrouded in ambiguity than the fuzzy caterpillar known as the “wooly bear” or “wooly worm.”  The black and rust color bands of these larvae are thought by many to represent the severity of the winter ahead.  Yet it is possible to find a multitude of patterns, from solids to  narrow or wide bands, all within a few yards on the same day.

Discerning of signs is the first Gospel to greet our ears this Advent season:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.

            --Luke 21:25-26

If speculation abounds concerning the winter weather, it is certainly surpassed by the speculation concerning the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.   Fierce magnetic storms from the sun, brilliant auroras in our latitude, howling tropical storm winds, and gathering armies in the Middle East all compound the conjecture.

Yet Scripture’s witness is consistent; while there may be general signs which indicate our Lord is coming, no specific time table will be given to anyone, not even to Jesus Himself  (see Mark 32-36).

Like the signs of winter’s onslaught--which  inform us of the certainty of  its coming but offer little real guidance on its severity---the signs pointing to the coming of the Kingdom present little or nothing of the details. And that is just as well, for the most important detail is that we be ready for the coming of the Kingdom, at any time, in any place.  As Luther explains the petition of the Lord’s Prayer “thy kingdom come”:

To be sure, the kingdom of God comes of itself, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us.


Anticipating the coming of the kingdom resembles making ready for winter.  One should not wait until the snow and ice begin to change tires, clear gutters, and stack firewood.  As the inevitability of winter should not bring a paralysis of preparation; so should the certainty of the coming of Christ’s kingdom not cause us to be inattentive to our work within the present manifestation of the kingdom, the church.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.  Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the son of Man.

         -Luke 21:34-36

We are strengthened in that vigilance and calmed in our confusion at
the table which anticipates the eternal feast of the Kingdom as we pray:

Send the power  of your Holy Spirit on us and on these gifts that in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of this wine we may know the presence of the living Christ; be one body in him, cleansed by his blood; faithfully serve him in the world; and look forward to that day foretold by prophets and apostles, when the One who came in humility and who comes today in Word and Sacrament shall come in final victory to share with us the great and promised feast.

To which may we reply with joyful hope:  “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!”

« Last Edit: November 23, 2018, 11:50:54 PM by J. Thomas Shelley »
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Chrismated Antiochian Orthodox, eve of Mary of Egypt Sunday, A.D. 2015

J. Thomas Shelley

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Re: Christmas Columns
« Reply #4 on: November 24, 2018, 12:03:31 AM »
And one more from the Lukan year which began with Advent 1997:

Tree of Remembering

One of the joyous preparations for Christmas in my household is the decorating of the tree.  Those who have seen the tree know that its ornaments are an eclectic mixture ranging from blown glass to wooden  musical instruments to imported jute animals. 

This tree might not have a particular theme; nor might it ever win any contests for precise placement of ornaments; yet it is one that I deeply appreciate.  I look forward to unpacking and hanging many of the ornaments in much the same way as I look forward to occasional meetings of old friends---in no small part because almost every ornament has a story behind it; or an association with some person or place.

Take, for example, the miniature adobe church.  Modeled on the Church of St. Philip Neri of Albuquerque, New Mexico, it reminds me not only of a fantastic cross country car trip taken over a decade ago; but also of Rev. Jack Price who served most of his ministry in that city--and who happens to be John’s godfather.

The homemade popsicle-stick frame surrounding a photograph of a candlelit church reminds me of the occasion of that picture:  my Wedding day nearly fifteen years ago on December 27.  Not only that one day is brought to mind; but all our “joys and sorrows and all that the years will bring”   The flood of memories sparkle like the photograph’s starry light.

Even the  bald-headed clown (always hidden near the bottom of the tree and close to its trunk) reminds me of Marilyn Henry, who belonged to the first parish I served.  She shopped high and low for the ugliest ornament she could find so that our tree might not be too perfect  (Is that a parable?)

But not all the ornaments unpacked produce warm memories. 

The many stitched yarn ornaments--some snowflakes, some candles, even one small blue church remind me of one of our oldest members, Florence Bortner, who in her better years fashioned dozens of ornaments and trinkets to share with the children of the congregation.  A stroke nearly three years ago has left her once talented hands unable to stitch. My hearts breaks a little when I find these treasures in the ornament box.

A small wreath given to wedding guests as a reception favor reminds me of a couple who have never come to services except to have their children Baptized.  My hearts breaks a lot when I find this in the ornament box.  For my memory is stirred by what might have been had the promises to “bring them faithfully to the services of the Lord’s house...and provide for their instruction in the Christian faith...” had been kept.  And like the ancient prophet I wonder, “how long, O Lord?”

The unpacking of the ornaments is a calling to mind, a remembering.  And it does indeed trigger for me the yearning of St. Paul:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  I am confident of this, that you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ...

      Philippians 1:3-4

Throughout the Advent season we are waiting not only for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but also for the day of his return in final victory:  For the coming of that day when all the scattered and separated children of God will be reunited; for that day when all the broken will be healed; for that day when all the indifferent will be consumed with zeal.

Until that day, our prayer is that of St. John in exile, Marana tha--Come, Lord Jesus.  And until that day, another ornament that I unwrap has great meaning and comfort.

That ornament is a little bird feeder--perch and roof made of wood and filled with seed; it is fashioned from a small used plastic communion cup.  For this is the greatest remembrance of all:  To  take bread and cup as Christ has commanded to call to mind  His Passion and Resurrection and His promise to come again.  And it is in the keeping of this memory that we can find healing and release from other memories, anxieties, and fears that would ensnare us.  As St. Paul writes:

The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by  prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God


May we remain faithful in rendering our prayer and praise, our thanksgiving, our Eucharist.  For our faithful God has promised:

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Greek Orthodox-Ecumenical Patriarchate

Baptized, Confirmed, and Ordained United Methodist.
Served as a Lutheran Pastor October 31, 1989 - October 31, 2014.
Charter member of the first chapter of the Society of the Holy Trinity.

Chrismated Antiochian Orthodox, eve of Mary of Egypt Sunday, A.D. 2015

Keith Falk

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Re: Christmas Columns
« Reply #5 on: November 24, 2018, 12:48:59 AM »
ATTENDING CHURCH AT CHRISTMAS? REST ASSURED, YOU ARE WELCOME!
By Charles Austin       
(This column first appeared in The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey. It has been reprinted several times and in several places.)

   You are welcome, and yes, we know who you are. From where I stand in the pulpit, you are more than welcome.
   You are the Christmas churchgoer. Maybe you slip into the rear pews. Maybe  you make some nervous joke shaking hands with us as you leave. Maybe you say your name somewhat sheepishly when we ask "Do I know you?" after the services. Maybe you try to avoid us. But believe me when I say you are welcome in church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You may get a few disapproving glances from the regulars, who are there nearly every Sunday. You may have to suffer the sharp edge that surrounds their greeting like the prickles of holly on a Christmas wreath.
   Forget about all that. Let me tell you what your presence at the Christmas service means.
   It means that you have not abandoned your faith. Perhaps you feel alienated from your church or have doubts about its teachings. Perhaps the bustle of modern life has kept you from being "as faithful as you ought to be," to use the trite phrase.
   When I see you in church on Christmas Eve, my heart is glad because I know that something in you still cares about your faith. You may not be active in the way that I would prefer, but spirituality is still a part of your life, and in these days of widespread skepticism, that is enough. At least it is a start.
   It also means that the great stories of our faith still have the power to draw you into their mysteries. Sunday after Sunday, we clergy preach these stories, sometimes to what appear to be uncomprehending congregations. But at Christmas, you and everyone else there, perhaps you more than the others, seem moved and touched by the stories that are the foundation of our faith.
   Your presence in church on Christmas tells me the faith survives where it is needed most, in the lives of ordinary people, people who make the effort to be in church, people who still feel drawn into the special wonder of faith that is manifest this season. As long as I see you there at a time like this, I believe you are open to having God with you at other times.
   We understand what you are going through as you enter the church on Christmas. Let me tell you a secret. Pastors, priests, and ministers also wonder whether "we ought to be here," whether we have any business dealing with such sublime matters of spirituality or eternity. The truth is that none of us, whether we lead the worship or whether we show up only on Christmas, has the right to stand before God this way. That we can do so at all is God's gift to us.
   So sing the carols, hear the stories, bask in the sights and smells of the season. You are welcome. And even if your own faith seems shaky, your presence means it hasn't collapsed. That makes you important, for you are a sign that faith survives.
     -0-


Thanks for posting this.  I appreciate it every time I read it, and have (with your permission) used it before.
Rev. Keith Falk, STS

Eileen Smith

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Re: Christmas Columns
« Reply #6 on: November 26, 2018, 01:40:52 PM »
ATTENDING CHURCH AT CHRISTMAS? REST ASSURED, YOU ARE WELCOME!
By Charles Austin       
(This column first appeared in The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey. It has been reprinted several times and in several places.)

   You are welcome, and yes, we know who you are. From where I stand in the pulpit, you are more than welcome.
   You are the Christmas churchgoer. Maybe you slip into the rear pews. Maybe  you make some nervous joke shaking hands with us as you leave. Maybe you say your name somewhat sheepishly when we ask "Do I know you?" after the services. Maybe you try to avoid us. But believe me when I say you are welcome in church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You may get a few disapproving glances from the regulars, who are there nearly every Sunday. You may have to suffer the sharp edge that surrounds their greeting like the prickles of holly on a Christmas wreath.
   Forget about all that. Let me tell you what your presence at the Christmas service means.
   It means that you have not abandoned your faith. Perhaps you feel alienated from your church or have doubts about its teachings. Perhaps the bustle of modern life has kept you from being "as faithful as you ought to be," to use the trite phrase.
   When I see you in church on Christmas Eve, my heart is glad because I know that something in you still cares about your faith. You may not be active in the way that I would prefer, but spirituality is still a part of your life, and in these days of widespread skepticism, that is enough. At least it is a start.
   It also means that the great stories of our faith still have the power to draw you into their mysteries. Sunday after Sunday, we clergy preach these stories, sometimes to what appear to be uncomprehending congregations. But at Christmas, you and everyone else there, perhaps you more than the others, seem moved and touched by the stories that are the foundation of our faith.
   Your presence in church on Christmas tells me the faith survives where it is needed most, in the lives of ordinary people, people who make the effort to be in church, people who still feel drawn into the special wonder of faith that is manifest this season. As long as I see you there at a time like this, I believe you are open to having God with you at other times.
   We understand what you are going through as you enter the church on Christmas. Let me tell you a secret. Pastors, priests, and ministers also wonder whether "we ought to be here," whether we have any business dealing with such sublime matters of spirituality or eternity. The truth is that none of us, whether we lead the worship or whether we show up only on Christmas, has the right to stand before God this way. That we can do so at all is God's gift to us.
   So sing the carols, hear the stories, bask in the sights and smells of the season. You are welcome. And even if your own faith seems shaky, your presence means it hasn't collapsed. That makes you important, for you are a sign that faith survives.
     -0-

Thank you.  I love this piece.  We've shared it at St. Timothy (with your permission).  A pastor was having some difficulty with her worship committee a year or two ago.  Apparently a young man would sing a solo every Christmas Eve  But that year his work scheduled changed and he was unable to make Sunday services with regularity   Some on the worship committee felt he forfeited his solo due to his lack of attendance.  I sent this article to her and it solved the problem.