Christmas Weddings and Wakes

Christmas memories are forever, good ones and not-so-good. My mother’s parents’ wedding anniversary was December 25. Since they lived with us, we were the hub where everyone gathered on Christmas Day. We laughed, exhibited our favorite gifts to one another, shot fireworks, and ate turkey, dressing, ambrosia and caramel cake. It was hilarious and holy all in one. I can hear Papa’s laugh and Grandmother’s orders. I can see Mother’s every-year-a-different-theme of decorations adorning the seventeen-stepped hall bannister. I can also see heavy-set Uncle Lee waddling up those same stairs to see the children play, the only adult brave or caring enough to dare invade our space.

He was also the one who gave us the strangest, yet most precious gifts. Uncle Lee would wrap a signed $2 bill around a pig’s ear, foot, or some other part then bundle it up in meat wrapping paper and grace each child with semi-macabre joy. I still have those treasures including a silver dollar with his “L.J.” initials in red fingernail polish across the coin’s face. The memories were mostly happy and they should have been. We found our cedar trees and cut them down. We were like explorers looking for treasure every year as we went Christmas tree hunting. Christmas was magical.

Christmas elicited the most marvelous experiences and memories. For instance, my call to ministry was shaped by Christmas Communion by candlelight at Trinity Episcopal. I can sense the awe and the love of God incarnate in Jesus right this minute. The Lord’s Supper never tasted so real. God marked me at Christmas. To this day, Christmas Eve services without communion just aren’t enough.

Christmas brought out the best in most people. I sold fireworks for my Uncle Homer every day of the holidays, a continuation of his son Jackie’s business. I nearly froze to death in that tiny little stand. I was warmed with very little heat thanks to all the gunpowder at hand. It was a happy joy to help a myriad collection of people celebrate the holidays. That was a gift in itself.

Christmas always meant love was in the air, too. It was not only my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, but my Mother and Father got married on December 23. In doing some family research this seems to be an automatic thing. Multiple generations have December weddings. Cindy and I got married on December 20, 41 years ago this year. We honestly didn’t think about any familial connection. I thought we were just too enamored with one another to wait until June.

But Christmas was a sad time, too. Uncle Lee died suddenly on December 23, 1974. Grandmother died sixteen days before our wedding on December 4, 1975. Uncle J.C. died on December 8, 2000. Weddings and wakes have been our family’s December experience for generations. Christmas has been the best of times and the worst of times. That sounds a lot like the first Christmas with Caesar Augustus and the Pax Romana, the enforced peace of Rome cobbled with a taxation to fund it. Good times and bad ones. That’s life, isn’t it?

And Jesus entered it, just like He always does. Jesus comes when we’re having a blast and making good memories, and He’s with us when times are tough and hard. Some of the chairs will be empty around the Christmas table again this year. Some of them will be filled by new mini-me’s of the latest iterations of our collective progeny. That probably won’t lessen the pain, but it certainly helps.

That’s our story, your story, humanity’s story. Maybe my family has been shaped by Christmas more than most as we ride the roller coaster of weddings and wakes, but, if anything, it has made us real. We’re such a Faulknerian Southern family. We have more saints and sinners than a story-teller like me can use, but authenticity is never a problem for us. Even better this Advent and Christmas is the Good News that Jesus is more real than us. He is the authentic, fully Human, fully Divine Savior. Whoever we are, whatever we’re going through, as my late brother Carlee always repeated, “Best of all, God is with us.” Emmanuel has come! He came to deliver us from everything that needs to be left behind. He came to make all things, including memories, new. Hallelujah!

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Trinity Sunday as United Methodist Hope

General Conference 2012 was a wake-up call for United Methodists to recapture our ecclesiology based on the Trinity. Much of our muddling was because we left out the theological underpinning that we so desperately needed to be civil in holy conferencing and to do good, not harm in our actions. I think that two of John Wesley’s best contributions to theology come from his understanding of how we as human beings are reflective of the Image of God, the imago Dei. Those two emphases, simply put, are an intentional concentration on sanctification and conferencing. While other faith groups emphasize that humankind carries the Image of God in a legal way that underscores dominion and ownership of the earth, Wesley believed primarily that we are made in the Moral Image and the Social Image of God. If God does the right thing, we being made in God’s image should do the right thing. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Hence, our Wesleyan understanding that God doesn’t save us in Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

Then Wesley really hit the jackpot in emphasizing our reflecting the Social Image of God. One of the best ways to think of the Trinity as social community is through the Greek word perichoresis. Think of two words to get at its meaning, peri is where we get the beginning of our word perimeter. It means “around.” Choresis is where we get the first part of the word “choreography,” which, of course, is about “dancing.” So the Greek or Eastern word with which Wesley felt most comfortable when thinking of the Trinity, literally means “Dancing Around.” When we see God as Parent, Child, and Spirit; Father; Son, and Holy Ghost, we see God dancing around in community, with intimacy and unity of purpose – a great model for Christian Community that provides a Wesleyan basis for holy conferencing. If God needs to dwell in community how much more so do we? So, as United Methodists, we have charge conferences, annual conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences, and general conference. The work of community is also found in Wesley’s class meetings and small accountability groups. The image of God is literally in our DNA and especially as it is reflected in our ecclesiology, our practice of being and doing church in the world.

The first Sunday (June 3, 2012) after Pentecost is always Trinity Sunday in celebration of God’s Three-In-One nature and action on creation’s behalf. If you’ve ever tried to explain the Trinity to a child or an adult, you know how difficult this doctrine is to comprehend. Though believing in a Three-In-One God seems more polytheistic than monotheistic, I don’t care. The more the merrier. I need all the help that I can get. I need God’s loving care as a parent, as Jesus the Savior, and through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity makes sure that we as individuals plus the Godhead are always a majority against any enemy. To be clear, however, we are monotheists. We just believe God has chosen to reveal God’s self through three distinct but indivisible persons.

To be sure, the Trinity is an unfathomable mystery. Every analogy from water (liquid, solid, and gas) to St. Patrick’s shamrock falls short of explaining the unexplainable mysterium tremendum of the Trinity. However, we miss the greatness of our God unless we accept how God has presented God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Harry Emerson Fosdick illustrated the revelation of the Trinity by pointing to various portrayals of Theodore Roosevelt. His Autobiography portrays Roosevelt as a statesman, politician, president and public figure. His Winning of the West portrays Roosevelt as a sportsman, hunter, explorer and soldier. His Letters to His Children shows him as a winsome, lovable, gentle father, husband and family man. Each one of these portraits was true to whoRoosevelt was. We know enough from each one of them to know something. But even when we put them all together, we still don’t know everything there is to know about who he was.

Likewise, Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC says, “If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

The Trinity is an affirmation of teamwork – One in Three and Three in One. Madeleine L’Engle says, “The Trinity proclaims a unity that in this fragmented world we desperately need. We are mortals who are male and female, and we need to know each other, love each other. The world gets daily more perilous. Our cities spawn crime. Terrorists are around every corner. Random acts of violence increase. Less understandable and less advertised is the sad fact that Christians are suspicious of other Christians. Don’t we have all the central things – God, making; Christ, awaking; the Holy Spirit, blessing – in common?”

The Trinity, therefore, models the unity that we should share. As United Methodists I hope that we will embrace our Wesleyan and Judeo-Christian heritage as bearers of the Image of God. If we can reflect God in doing good, not harm, and remember that we need each other in Christian community then we have a hopeful future. However pained many are in the aftermath of General Conference 2012 there is a way forward. Trinity Sunday is a superb reminder if we will ponder it!