As I write this, I am listening to an online mix of Christmas carols.
I heard that same music mix yesterday in the neighborhood Kroger. And the day before in a Starbucks where I pulled in for coffee on a trip across four states. And more of the same music on the “all Christmas” radio stations along that long road. Lovely background music. A continuous medley of the hymnal carols that sing our praise about the birth of Jesus — “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” — interspersed with Hallmark-esque nativity fictions — “Little Drummer Boy,” “Mary, Did You Know?” — woven together with sentimental secular favorites — “Frosty the Snowman,” “Silver Bells.” All mixed up together.
This year, Christmas background music seems a little creepy. This year, I get a little queasy when I hear Jesus’ birthday hymns jazzed out and put in the same mix as “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
“You better watch out, you better not cry” because someone is “making a list and checking it twice.” This does not sound so innocent to me right now. Though this Rev Grandma knows that the Jolly Old Elf has no power over me anymore, the Electoral College does wield mighty power over all of us and our future together. Today, they will most certainly elect a president who lost “bigly” the popular vote. The presumed USA President #45 won by promising to sacrifice “the naughty” ones by “fixing” the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Social Security, and food assistance. He has promised to “make a list” of enemies and of Muslims, and he will have the power over any existing lists of undocumented immigrants.
Unless your church is very different than the ones I have served, we maintain the cultural institution that plays the background music for a “Christian nation.” We are the anchor institution for the families — families — who count on us “keeping the doors open” until we can some day fulfill our yet-unrealized dream of re-creating the church of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
I am one of those Baby Boomers. I remember that mid-twentieth century “idyllic” time in USA mainline church life. The church provided programs for all ages. Long forgotten is that “the church” (program providers) was the paid church staff and the many stay-at-home moms. Even more forgotten is that programs were consumer-responsive products of the desire to attract more families. Baptisms, confirmations and holidays were celebrated and recorded in baby book and photo albums; disciple-making was not.
Congregations came into this election cycle with our most faithful congregants spending very limited time putting themselves in the way of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are still program-absorbed. Our meetings spend more time talking about money and buildings than we spend sharing and growing our faith together.
As an antidote to self-absorption and a sincere desire to make a difference, we practice the church-y version of trickle-down economics at Christmas. We adopt a family or two or more; we collect toys or offerings or socks; we volunteer for a day or two. Out of our abundance, we give. Not that there is anything wrong with that. We will do the same thing at work, at our club, in our apartment complex. People are helped, for a season.
Now, post-USA election, some are trying church again. They are not looking for a Board of Christian Ed to help out or an anemic church offering plate to fill up or even another social or civic club. People coming back to our churches are seeking to make sense out of unbelievable current events. The world — their world — is not getting better with time or by way of good intentions. They/we have tried Hallmark feel good sentiments, cultural Christmas, family first, voting for a better world, engaging in social action — not that there is anything wrong with any of those.
They can’t sleep.
They can’t retire this year.
Their son-in-law might be deported.
Their LGBTQI identity might get them fired.
Their Muslim neighbors’ house was vandalized last night.
Their adult son with multiple disabilities might lose his health insurance.
“You better not pout.”
“You better not cry.”
This year, elections have opportunities. Our churches can re-focus our resources on our distinctive message of Life and our much-needed purpose of being an alternative community to cultural Christianity.
Is now the time when we pastors will have that honest, no-holding-back conversation with our congregations about the current state of the gospel-sharing health of our churches? If not now, when?
More than uplifting background music or beautiful backdrops for life events, churches are commissioned to be bearers of the good news:
God-is-Love is born to the world!
And people are desperately seeking good news.
Rev. Sharon Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor in Nashville TN. She is a contributor to the RevGals book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” and blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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