Christmas celebrations are often full of sound. It would be good for us to make room for silence, to hear the voice of Love. – Pope Francis, via Twitter
The pope has a point on this one. When I read this quote a few days ago, I immediately started thinking about the sounds of the season, about how much we let Christmas and the holidays in general be dominated by sound. It makes sense really; so many, especially those of us raised in Christian tradition, are moved by the carols, spoken prayers, and scripture we’ve come to associate only with this one special time of year. So what I’m about to say isn’t that any of this is bad. Sound is fine; actually, it’s an amazing part of being a human with functioning hearing. But it isn’t what’s holy about Christmas, at least not to me.
I realize that there’s a lot of stuff, like, biblical stuff, that someone could point to and say, “That part of the coming of Christ is all about sound, and it seems pretty holy to me.” And I’m not going to argue with you. There are angels who scare a bunch of shepherds with what must have been an astounding, though nonsensical, announcement. There’s the annunciation that kicked it all off. There’s even a squalling baby who’s pretty integral to the plot. But for me, there are two critical pieces to the coming of Christ – Christ coming in the first place, and how we react to that arrival. The distinction is important, because I see that first part as the one which contains all the elements of sound, of language and praise and pronouncement. But the second part, where we are confronted with holiness incarnate and must experience it in relationship, is a silent moment draped in awe and the fullness of being.
It isn’t quiet where I’m writing this; it’s a bustling coffee shop, the week after Christmas, people rejoining to recount their holiday trips, stopping in before continuing to shop and spend gift cards, employees falling back into the groove after an all-too-short break. But I’ve made an effort to find my peace, my joy in Christmas, in the quiet spaces. And for those of us who celebrate the mystery that is Emmanuel, God with us, we are still in the season. Epiphany approaches, and in it we have maybe the strongest example of the contemplative act that is seeking to rest in the presence of the Christ. The wise men seek the Christ, not to speak to a newborn or sing to wake him, but to stand in awe in the full yet silent light of God.
The path of the wise men toward their star isn’t one which requires language, hosannas, or even explanation. It is an intentional walk to meet the face of God, to look into the mysterious Love that is a child born to bring grace. Their walk to the manger is a prayer all its own, and we can mimic the act and its meaning. We can seek the Christ in our own silent meditation, in a walking prayer, in the contemplative moments silence affords. I think it’s what Thomas Merton meant when he prayed, “My God, I pray better to You by breathing. I pray better to You by walking than talking.”1 The holiness of Christmas is standing silently beside a baby, marveling at the love and creativity wrapped up in its being, and knowing all is well. Merry Epiphany.
Some bigoted guy says a dumb thing and we all go crazy. John Hagee, the CEO of a Church Like Organization1 (CLO) in Texas, told atheists and humanists to leave the country if they don’t like hearing Christmas carols.
Why does this stuff get play? I mean, I know I’m reposting it here. I apologize for that. But I really don’t understand why this is news.
I stopped reading after he told atheists and humanists to stuff a Walkman in their ears. First of all, there’s no way an entire Walkman would fit in your ear. Second of all, I don’t even know where you’d find a Walkman. Third of all, I think he meant iPod. Fourth of all, I think what he really meant was earbuds. Fifth of all, cool kids these days are wearing over the ear headphones for their superior audio fidelity.
Sorry. I lied. I didn’t stop reading after he said the thing about the Walkman. This stuff is just the best. We eat it up. I’m so offended by this guy. He said Hitler was sent by God to hunt Jews. He said that! That’s some crazy ass shit.
It’s kinda distressing to recognize that Hagee’s pulpit is bigger than mine or the ones filled by any of my friends will ever be and that his CLO2 clearly fills some need for the thousands of people who make up its body, but it feels great to be so much better than this old man. Compared to this guy I’m so ethical. I have friends who are secular humanists and friends who are atheists. We get along and everything. There are even people at my church who are agnostic! I know their names and shake their hands. I don’t want them to leave the country and that makes me a good person.
Good for me being better than John Hagee.
I’ve been engaged recently in a conversation with a good friend about wealth. It was occasioned by some of the hubbub surrounding financial advisor, Dave Ramsay.
The following is excerpted from a message I wrote to my friend that I thought was worth sharing here. I’ve scrubbed it of any personal information and attempted to massage it into a post that is easier to follow. Below I cover a definition of prosperity gospel, take a short look at the bible and its stance on wealth and the wealthy, take a break to wonder whether poverty might just be a state of mind, and finally reflect on the ethics of pursuing wealth as a means of helping the poor.
A simple definition of prosperity gospel is the notion that God rewards faithfulness with material riches. This appears pretty ridiculous when we know what happens to Jesus and his disciples for their faith, not to mention martyrs throughout history.
But there is also a subtler prosperity gospel that works within the American Protestant work ethic that we’re all informed by. This is the idea that through productive work we become closer to God. Perhaps at a deeper level there is an expectation that one’s Americanness and one’s Christianity are one in the same. The assumption is, if you’re a good Christian and a good American you’ll be prosperous.
Unlike the more obvious, and frankly obnoxious, first form of prosperity gospel, the second form does not need to be preached because it’s a basic assumption of being an American, and even more so an American Christian. Within this ideology is the assumption that poverty says more about the immorality of the poor than the immorality of the wealthy. This is exactly backward biblically.
I don’t want to engage in proof texting. However, there are over 300 verses about the poor in the bible. Taken together there is a preferential option for the poor throughout the Old and New Testament. And when there isn’t simply an option for the poor, there is outright condemnation for the rich and the pursuit of wealth. Here are just a few that come to mind off the top of my head.1
Of course there are plenty of opportunities for proof texting around work ethic, avoiding laziness, etc. But I don’t think those verses are prescriptive.
For instance, Proverbs 24:
“I passed by the field of one who was lazy, by the vineyard of a stupid person; and see, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.”
Telling someone that if they don’t farm their land properly they might go hungry or starve is different from saying, you didn’t farm your land properly and even though I have food to help you I’m going to teach you a lesson and let you go hungry. On the other hand, “give your possessions to the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked,” those are prescriptive. I think when we read through a lens that assumes a preferential option for the poor it overwhelms the Protestant work ethic and the gospel of prosperity.
The basic idea here is that one may be full of immaterial riches no matter what your bank account looks like, if you have one. I really am trying to take this point seriously. I have reflected upon it and I think can see the fullness of the point and, rich or poor, it is an important part of living a full and meaningful life.
But sometimes you’re just poor. If you have to decide whether to buy shoes or food, you’re poor. If you have to line up in the park every day to get a free sack lunch on your way to work so you can make rent, you’re poor. If you do whatever you can to avoid going to the doctor because you can’t afford healthcare, you’re poor. If you work 60 hours a week and you still can barely make it to the end of the month, you’re poor. These are all examples of people I know. Bless them, they’re lovely, happy people. But there is no way in hell I would look them in the eye and tell them they aren’t economically poor and that for their work and their very being they don’t deserve more.
My thesis here is the following (I acknowledge it is arguable and has been argued throughout the years): The production of wealth itself creates the conditions that lead to poverty. This is the biblical contention in my opinion. That being said…
Is it wrong to pursue wealth in order to help the poor? Maybe not. A person who chooses to do so has certainly gone through ethical reflection, and that is laudable. However, this ignores the reality of systemic injustice and exploitation within economies, local and global.
Some may argue that the market is amoral. At best, it is supposed to be blind to race, sex, creed, nation, and means. But it is through this blind amorality that it becomes immoral, because it is not humane. That is, it does not recognize humans as beings created and loved by a graceful God. Instead, the market sweeps up individuals and communities in its endless march, unable and unwilling to see the created nature of the world and the beloved image of God in each person.
The pursuit of wealth is undertaken within this supposedly amoral system. To use one’s wealth for the poor in a system like this may feel and look like charity or mercy, but in reality it is a catharsis by which the system seeks it sustain itself.
Of course sin is unavoidable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to transform systems for the justice promised by God’s kingdom here and now, as if the present systems and their sinfulness are ordained by God. Instead of this amoral economy that exposes people to the vagaries of a blind market, and which requires a certain set of behaviors which are in no way intrinsic to human individuals, what would an economic system with grace at its center look like?
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
The following is every verse I could quickly think of regarding poverty and wealth in the Bible. Let’s call this a living post. If you have a verse to add, please email
I like the Common English Bible largely because of their translation “Human One” where “Son of Man” usually occurs. ↩
I’m the outreach pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist, here in Denver. Among other things, we serve around 150 people breakfast every Sunday morning. Homeless people. Hungry people. We serve them breakfast and try to create a warm, welcoming environment.
I coordinate this breakfast and make it a point to be there through the entire meal. I walk around. I run and grab cups for coffee or paper towels for spills. Most of the time I just kind of wander and keep an eye on things. I talk to our volunteers. I talk to our guests. Actually, I usually just listen and try to memorize names. My intention is simply to be an open presence to the friends who join us for breakfast.
On Sunday, October 20, in addition to my regular early morning duties, I was to lead worship and preach a sermon. Given that I would be leading worship, I dressed up a bit more than usual. I wasn’t in a suit or anything, but I wore chinos, nice shoes, an oxford, tie, and sweater. I hesitated as I was getting ready to go to church Sunday morning. “Is it inappropriate to dress like this among the folks who I will be among at breakfast this morning?” I briefly considered wearing something else and changing clothes between breakfast and worship.
It’s not that I dress like a schlub on weeks that I’m not preaching. I’ll usually wear jeans and a button down shirt. But I was definitely dressed “up,” this Sunday.
As I was making my way around the common room, I happened to hear someone make a comment about me. I couldn’t tell you exactly what was said. It was so faint that I almost disregarded it as a trick of my mind. The only word I could tell you I actually heard was the word, “tie.” I decided I did hear something and glanced around the room. I noticed two of our regulars looking right at me from across the room: Chris and… (I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember his name) let’s call him Mustache.
Chris likes to talk to me about the freedom of the Holy Spirit. Mustache likes to quote scripture at me. Memorizing scripture was never really my jam. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember Mustache’s name. He makes me feel insecure.
As I approach Chris and Mustache, Mustache asks, “Did Jesus dress like that?” I said, “What?” Mustache asks again, this time with an edge in his voice, “Did Jesus dress like that?” Three responses came to me all at once:
I went with the third one and stood there stupidly, looking at Mustache, waiting for what came next.
"Doesn’t Paul tell us to be humble," Mustache asked. "Yes," I answered. "Well is all that being humble?"
Then, I said — and I’m embarrassed about this — “Man, I’m down here every week,” as if to say, “I’ve humbled myself enough to be here among the poor.”
I could go into the rest of our conversation in detail, but I won’t. I sat down at the table and we talked for ten minutes. I mostly ran through an automatic routine of hedges, justifications, and diversions installed in me by too much education and argument. What I really did was avoid the issue of the way I was dressed. I was totally rattled from that point forward, all the way through the rest of breakfast and worship. As an obvious and outward sign of my privilege, my clothing made me uncomfortable when faced by the fact by a homeless man.
As I dressed myself that morning and looked in the mirror, I did feel pride. I looked good. Maybe this is a small thing. There are dozens of ways to soothe my troubled conscience. I know all of the arguments already. But maybe it is everything.
Have I objectified the poor as an object of service? Have I made the homeless into a monolith, there so that I might appease my own guilt and the guilt of our society for creating the conditions that lead to homelessness in the first place? Have I taken even a step toward truly becoming a servant? Am I simply proud?
In ministry and service with the poor (hopefully it is “with”), these are the kinds of questions we must always be asking, no matter how we’re dressed.