Tag Archives: Walter Brueggemann

Merry Christmas Church Visits Readers

The stores are closing or will be shortly.  Services all over town are starting. Another Christmas/Advent season will soon be a distant memory.  As we close out Advent and begin Christmas, I’d like to share a quote from my favorite theologian, Walter Brueggemann. In his new book, Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent, sharing thoughts about Christmas Eve he writes, “The gift of Christmas contradicts everything we sense about our own life. Our world feels unsavable, and here is the baby named Jesus, “Save.” Our world and our lives often feel abandoned and here is the baby named Immanuel, “God with us.” Be ready to have your sense of the world contradicted by this gift from God. Rest on the new promise from the angel that you may be safe and whole and generous.”

May the blessings of this wonderful gift attend your Christmas celebrations and continue into the new year.

Merry Christmas!

Chris Thompson
churchvisits@gmail.com
churchvisits.com

Re-examining the meaning of Advent

This Sunday, Advent Sunday, signals two significant events in many denominations. First, the church year for many mainline denominations begins. Second, Advent begins: an annual period of about four weeks before Christmas, which for 1,500 years has been marked by fasting, repentance, hoping and prayerfully pondering the first and second Advents. Advent offers real meaning to the season, especially providing teachable moments for children and those new to the Christian faith. While Advent is primarily observed by Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as mainline Protestant denominations such as Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Congregational, other denominations are also slowly adopting its observance.

Sadly, for many Christians, Advent only marks the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when expensive holiday decorations go up in, on and around their houses. Then too, parents ponder, and often agonize over, what they are going to give family members and themselves for Christmas. The National Retail Federation survey for Christmas 2015 finds that holiday shoppers plan to spend an average $463 on family members, up from $458 last year and the highest in survey history. Average spending per person is expected to reach $805, with more than half of shoppers planning to splurge on non-gift items for themselves.

Contrast this with the loving charity embedded in Baxter Road Bible Church’s December giving program, where all church income is donated to those in need in this community. Pastor Bob Mather told me this week that, to date, $300,000 has been donated to “to help the poor, the needy and those going through a hard time.” Members suggest which local organizations receive this aid.

“We have found that the more generous we are, the better off we are financially,” Mather says. “You truly cannot out-give God.” BRBC’s program goes under the title “It’s Not Your Birthday.” That’s such an excellent idea. A few other local churches might designate one Christmas offering for this purpose, but December’s offerings? Incredible!

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable,” wrote Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While imprisoned in Germany during World War II, he penned some thoughts to friends reflecting on the Advent season. “It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.” Advent goes much deeper than much of what we see and experience in most churches.

Changing attitudes are slowly being seen in other denominations, such as Southern Baptists, where Advent is not a core tradition. Joe Carter, communications specialist for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in an article titled “Southern Baptists and Advent: Four Things to Know” that acknowledges changing attitudes in that denomination, writes: “With the exception of Christmas and Easter, Southern Baptist congregations in America generally do not observe the days of the Western church calendar. Instead, they tend to follow the pattern of the Puritans, who believed following the liturgical calendar violated their liberty of conscience (many Puritans refused to celebrate any holidays besides the Lord’s Day). Some Baptist churches, however, have begun to incorporate Advent observance in their preparations for Christmas.”

Traditional Advent music looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, and a traditional observance of Advent avoids Christmas carols, which are are reserved for celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve. The watchful anticipation expressed in these hymns — such as “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” or “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” — is part of the attraction of Advent. From the perspective of one observing a traditional liturgical calendar, singing Christmas songs during Advent would be like a spoiler for a movie you were looking forward to seeing. Nevertheless, many congregations do so. Last year, when I asked a pastor why his congregation was singing carols during Advent, I was told they skipped traditional Advent hymns in favor of more cheerful music.

Advent sermons often address the key themes of each Advent Sunday: hope, love, joy and peace. They’re linked to the four purple Advent candles in a wreath of evergreen, lit in order each Sunday as a new theme is taken up.. On Christmas Eve, a white candle in the center of the wreath is lit to signify Jesus, the light of the world.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in a sermon titled “The What and the When of the Christ Child,” said: “People like us have careful work to do in Advent, to weave our way between two big dangers. On the one hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who specialize in times and dates and schedules, who know with precision the time of Christ’s coming and who speak confidently of millennia and pre-millennia and post-millennia. … They know too much and reduce God’s freedom to the timetable of their ideology. On the other hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who are offended by those people, and who in reaction are in love with their comfortable affluence and who imagine that it will not get any better than this, and who expect no gospel arrival at any time ever. People like us live in that awkward place amid those who know too much and those who expect nothing.”

Advent is a wonderful time to challenge and strengthen your faith and can be a useful force for sharing and Christian growth.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Easter is here — let’s celebrate

By the time most read this, Lent will be over, capping a period of self-examination, possibly prayer and fasting, and maybe taking up something new or giving up something truly harmful. This weekend Western Christianity celebrates Easter, while Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter (Pascha) a bit later due to differences between Julian and Gregorian calendars.

Does Easter need to be connected with spending?

One of the first things that came to my mind as I wrote this column is that Easter, despite its strong religious overtones, has become a major spending holiday for many Americans, with narcissistic displays of self-gratification. Easter is really not about us, is it? But according to the National Retail Federation, Easter spending places it in the middle of major American holidays. NRF notes shoppers are expected to spend more than $16.4 billion this year — or about $141 per person — with food, clothing, candy, and gifts heading the list. Easter spending positions it immediately after Valentine’s and Mother’s Day. That is a huge amount of money ostensibly honoring an event of religious significance, but really honoring oneself. In reality Easter is a celebration of the heart. Clearly Christmas and the other related winter holidays, which also have religious significance, score first place, topping $600 billion. Together, Easter and Christmas spending in the U.S. represents an amount larger than the national budgets of all but the nine wealthiest nations. Neither event really needs to be more than heartfelt commemorations expressing gratitude to the Godhead for dealing with the problem of sin.

What is Easter about?

For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the event distinguishing Christianity from all other faiths. In the events of Holy Week, culminating in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the very last events of Jesus’ life are noted and commemorated. Easter is the capstone following the last week of Lent. The prophecies and the predictions of Jesus are fulfilled in the empty tomb. For Christians, Easter represents the ransom paid for sin, and believers in the promise can live without the burden of sin and guilt. Therefore on Easter, we celebrate this wonderful event with music, song, rejoicing and sharing the good news of a risen Lord. Some celebrate with Easter sunrise services patterned after Scripture references to the resurrection being early, and some celebrate in their churches at regular worship times. An excellent volume about the resurrection is theologian N.T. Wright’s weighty and exhaustively researched volume “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” If you are a doubter, this is book may well contain your answers. Wright notes in this book that “resurrection is never a redescription of death, but always its overthrow and reversal.”

Should Easter be only a one-day celebration?

Some faiths do not observe Easter, claiming their faith daily observes the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. A few other faiths note Easter’s pagan origin, or development over time that may have incorporated other non-Christian practices, as a reason they do not observe Easter.

Again, Wright —  in his wonderful volume “Surprised by Hope” — writes, “Easter ought to be an eight-day festival, with Champagne served after Morning Prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias, extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.” In this book, Wright devotes many paragraphs to the ways we could be celebrating Easter. Few faiths maintain such enthusiasm for the celebration beyond the day itself, but it’s a worthy goal.

Easter celebrations of note

The Thursday, April 2 edition of Alaska Dispatch News features a two-page ad of various Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter celebrations being held in our community. I’ve found it a reliable source of information about the many service options being offered locally.

I discovered that ChangePoint and ChangePoint NE were holding Easter services at UAA’s Alaska Airlines Center with services at 9:30 a.m. and noon. Five services between the two congregations can be collapsed into two at this new and spacious event facility at UAA. Reaching out to Adam Legg, ChangePoint’s creative arts and communications pastor, I asked why they chose this venue for Easter services.

“First, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for our church family to invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers and family to join them on Easter Sunday,” Legg said. “Our vision at ChangePoint is ‘Life in Christ for every Alaskan and the world beyond,’ and we absolutely believe that every person who calls ChangePoint ‘home’ is involved in that vision. Second, this amazing facility allows us the space to welcome the community to join us. Last Easter we were at max capacity at two of our four Easter services. Third, we have already found that a neutral location may cause people who are typically averse to attending a church, to reconsider. For us to step out of our building, and go to a prominent location in our city, makes it easier for people to check us out. We absolutely cannot wait to join thousands of people at the Alaska Airlines Center next Sunday as we celebrate the risen Jesus!”

I plan on attending one of ChangePoint’s services, and also a sunrise service. If you recognize me, please come over and introduce yourself.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his startling poem “Easter in the Very Belly of Nothingness,” concludes with, “O Friday God — Easter the failed city, Sunday the killing fields. And we, we shall dance and sing, thank and praise, into the night that holds no more darkness.”

That’s what Easter’s about. Happy Easter!

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.