I didn’t think I’d get a Christmas devotional done this year. But it looks like I did. You can hear most of this in audio form by clicking here. You can read it by just continuing below. Hope you’re having a blessed holiday…
There is an old story I have heard various folks –from conservative preachers to liberal rabbis– tell. Which probably means it’s a good one. You may have heard this before in a slightly different form…
Once there was a young boy, perhaps four-years-old, afraid of the dark and of “monsters under the bed.” One night, he calls for his Mom in the middle of the night, and shares his fears about it.
They turn on the light. They look under the bed. Much to his relief, there are no monsters.
Moments later, he calls to her again, and she comes running again. He tells her that he is sure there are monsters in the closet. So, they open up the closet, push back the clothes. No monsters.
Sensing that he needs additional reassuring, she reminds him that she is right down the hall, and that he is completely safe.
And, she adds, “Even when Mommy is not with you, God is with you. You can pray to God, and God will help keep you safe.”
She kisses him goodnight, and heads off to bed.
But, the boy stares into the dark, his eyes wide open, thinking now not only of monsters under the bed, but also of Mommy down the hall, and of prayers to God. The boy thinks and thinks. Fnally, he can stand it no more, and so he calls out one more time. “Moommy!!!”
His mother comes running.
“What is it, dear?”
“Mommy,” he says, “I’ve been thinking about this God-thing. I know that I can pray to God. But I think what I need is a God will a little skin on ‘em.”
A God with a little skin on ‘em.
Wouldn’t it be GREAT to worship a “God will a little skin on ‘em?”
Wouldn’t it be great to worship a God known through the embrace of a child, or the laughter of a wise old man?
Wouldn’t it be great to worship a God of a mother love’s or father’s hug?
Wouldn’t it be great to worship a God known in the passion of lovers, or the compassion of those serving a meal to the homeless?
Wouldn’t it be great to worship a God known through the use of our senses…our touch, smell, taste, sight…hearing?”
Wouldn’t it be great to worship a God known through music, art, dance, spoken word?
Wouldn’t it be great to worship a “God with a little skin on ‘em?”
Oh…wait…We already do…
Maybe you did too?
You see, dear friends, this IS the message of Christmas. We call it Christmas, but it might be more helpful to call it “The Festival of a God With a Little Skin on ‘Em.”
The message of Christmas is a message of Incarnation. Incarnation is the big, sixty-four-million dollar theological world for “God with a little skin on ‘em.”
And Incarnation, dear friends, is a mind-blowing concept, once you start to really unpack it. God come to earth as a human being. The God who said the way to love and serve God is through loving and serving ourselves and others.
God who is not simply remote, transcendent, far away “other,” but God who is as close as your breath. As near as the trees outside your window.
Process Theology has always been very important to me personally, and it was when I first grasped that process theology was saying that God was BOTH transcendent (beyond and removed from all time) AND immanent (a part of all time and space too) that I first understood Christmas…and, frankly, that I first came to realize I could accept the Christian story.
Because the myth, the “Meme,” the Ultimate Reality –whatever word your are comfortable with to describe what is basically a narrative story– is that God came to earth, and that God continually comes to earth all the time.
Here’s how Frederick Buechner describes it in his great book, “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.” (One of my all-time favorite books, btw…) He says:
“The word became flesh,” wrote John, “and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). That is what incarnation means. It is untheological. It is unsophisticated. It is undignified. But according to Christianity, it is the way things are….
All religions and philosophies that deny the reality or the significance of the material, the fleshly, the earthbound, are themselves denied. Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground (Exodus 3:5), and incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here. And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth, but our bodies and our earth themselves…”
One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.”
Friends, this is, at one and the same time, one of the hardest theological truths to understand, and also one of the most profound and most simple. The Christmas story is not about presents. It’s not about red or green bows. It’s not about saccarin Muzak carols in a shopping mall. It’s not about a big family meal.
It’s about God coming to earth as a human being, and about comprehending how beautiful and powerful that truth is. It’s about stepping back and being amazed at this truth….at how incredible and awe-inspiring it is.
God chose to be born in what was, at the time, a quite forgotten and lonely place. God was not born in a penthouse on the Upper West Side. God was born in the equivalent of Guatemala, or Haiti. God was not born to those in power of priviledge. God was born to unwed teen parents, who were more like refugees fleeing Darfur than shoppers hurrying into Neimans.
And my hunch is that the Christian story is told just this way so that we cannot miss the fact that God is born into all parts of our world.
This seems to be the mystery that Mary “gets” as she speaks her lines in the Gospel of Luke:
“…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God, from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
This is the real message of Christmas, dear friends. And yet, it is so completely foreign from the “cultural Christmas” all around us, that perhaps we even fail to hear it clearly.
As some of you know, sometimes my mind goes strange places. And this week I thought to myself: You know, every year, I get dozens of Christmas cards from friends far and wide. But it struck me that in all the years I have gotten Christmas cards, I have neve ONCE gotten a Christmas card with any of these scriptures from Luke…from Mary.
And so, I began to imagine in my head, a new set of very un-Hallmark like cards, created from the words of Mary.
Here’s what I see…On the outside, a normal average manger scene, bucholic and peaceful.
And on the inside, a greeting like this:
“God has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.
A Very Merry Christmas to You!”
“God has put down the Mighty and Lifted Up the Lowly
“God has filled up the hungry and sent the rich empty away.
Warmest Christmas Blessings!”
Ever once gotten a card like this?
I’d love to, though. Because that’s the true Christmas message.
Now let me say a world about our society and our world. Because good news to the poor –good news to the marginalized– can sometimes seem like BAD news to folks like us. Even with the economic crisis, we’re doing pretty well, comparitively. Everybody in this room is still among the top percentage of wealthiest people in the world.
So, when we hear this word that God comes to the poor, the lowly, the destitute…it can sounds like bad news to us…bad news FOR us.
But it’s really just good news for EVERYBODY. What the Christmas message says, really, is that there is no meaning to the word “Godforsaken.” There is no PLACE that is “Godforsaken.” There are no PEOPLE who are “Godforsaken.”
You know, Mary’s wonderment is also captured in the beauty of a song and dance that was offered up in our worship at church today. It was the American folk hymn “I Wonder as I Wander.”
Folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles allegedly found the short phrases that became the genesis of this song, while in the town of Murphy in Appalachian North Carolina. It was 1933 and Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by evangelicals who had been ordered out of town by the police.
In his unpublished autobiography, he says this about it:
“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”
From that fragment, Niles crafted the song we now know. One of the verses goes like this:
“If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God’s Angels in heaven to sing
He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King”
You see? Just like Mary, the wonderment of the poor in Appalachia, realizing that God came to earth, not in Kingly form, but among the common folk in a common place.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
Don’t you love the line ”For poor, on’ry people….like you and like I?”
I think it’s my favorite.
See, everyday I hang around, and love, a lot of “on’ry people.” Cynics. Skeptics. Those who are outright suspicious, or even hostile, toward organized religion (any of them, take your pick. Much less Christianity). That describes a lot of the folks in my church, God love ’em.
And the message of Christmas is that no place, no person, no part of this creation is Godforsaken. The incarnate God –God with a little skin on ’em– is also born to the on’ry folks too.
Folks like you..like I.
(As always, if you like this post, then “share it” or “like” it on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too…)