Sunday, December 26, 2010

A choice in the year ahead

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. - Luke 1:78, 79

Christmas in Chicago brings side by side signs of the power of this world and the power of another. A child will go before them, we hear in Zechariah's song in the Gospel of Luke, "to guide our feet into the way of peace." Then, as now, we are in need of this voice.

An early Christian text from the second century or so, the Epistle to Diognetus, suggests that being a Christian is neither an ethnicity or an earthly citizenship but a way of life that is somehow at odds with the the societies in which Christians live. Christians may look like everyone else, but our practices of hospitality, charity and nonviolence should make us different.

But all this changed by the end of Constantine's reign, the emperor who Christianized Rome, in the fourth century A.D. Diana Butler Bass, in her book, A Poeple's History of Christianity, says that with Constantine, Christians no longer had to be "resident aliens," but they could hold dual citizenship in Rome and in the kingdom of God.

In fact, Christians had already conflated the two allegiances into one, fully identifying Roman interests with Jesus' way.

As I walked down Michigan Avenue, the miracle mile in Chicago, the two kingdoms as one was clearly still in evidence.

Empire then, empire now. We Christians must make a choice. I have a sense the choice will be even clearer in 2011.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Making Room

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (God with us). -Isaiah 7:14

Last night, I slept overnight at my church. One week each quarter, our church hosts the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), a local organization that works with churches to provide overnight transitional housing for people in our community who find themselves homeless.

Usually, I'm grumpy when it's our turn to sleep at the church. I don't sleep very well. And it interrupts my morning routine. But usually, the stark reality of the situation breaks in pretty quickly.

Last night at the church, a young woman in her early 20s had two young children with her, the youngest just a few weeks old. Two more children were staying elsewhere. She had hoped to move in with a friend this week, but even the shared rent and utilities seemed too daunting.

The second woman had two older children with her. The youngest was celebrating his eleventh birthday and was looking forward to his mother bringing cupcakes to school in the morning. This woman grew up in one of the Mennonite congregations in our community and her grandfather had been a Mennonite minister.

Almost three million Americans are just like these two women and their families who find themselves without a place to call home at night. In my community, IHN provides short-term housing for over 40 families each year.

In the economic recession, more and more families are finding themselves in need of some sort of public assistance. In Indiana, where I live, the number of residents seeking welfare benefits has grown by nearly half in just the last two years.

This week, the temperature outside is in the 20s, but there are people who don't have a warm place to stay inside. Meanwhile, Congress is dickering about whether tax breaks should be extended to the wealthiest 1% among us.

I am little better than Congress. I drove home from the church this morning and turned on the Christmas lights, started the coffee, took a hot shower and washed the experience away.

Walter Wangerin says that heaven invades the world at Christmas, ripping our attention away from the world and making room for Immanuel, God with us.

The sign outside my church describes my congregation as "praying for peace, acting for peace." This year, I'm hoping that Christmas will invade my world, too, and the world of other Christians in my community and that we will do more than pray for the peace and well-being of others.