Every year, my old friend Kenn Ward sets up a Nativity scene in his front yard in Winnipeg.
Many of us have indoor Nativity scenes, often called a creche. And we never set the figures up exactly the same way each year. Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus take centre stage, of course. But the shepherds, the visitors from the east, the animals – they get shuffled around, depending on what we feel is the essential theme of the story, this year.
Kenn has that problem too, with the bigger figures for his outdoor creche. “I never know quite what to expect,” he wrote on Facebook. “Usually one of the figures, or a group of them, insist that they have been neglected and deserve more prominence in the scene. There is often a clash of egos…
“This year the crew surprised me. They told me that with everything going on the world, they didn't think this was a time for big egos seeking prominence.”
Promoting peace, love, joy, hope
Kenn expressed a hope: “Perhaps when some parents and children pass by and stop to look at this scene, a parent will tell them the story that the figures portray. Or someone passing by will stop and reflect for a few moments. And people will remember the important things in life that really matter, like love, peace, joy and hope.”
On the other hand, people passing by might act like the couple who stopped to look at the Nativity scene set up outside a church. One of them said to the other, “Look at that! Even the churches are horning in on Christmas now!”
Our church used to set out a Nativity scene. But then one December night, somebody stole Mary, Joseph and the baby. I’m not sure why – it’s hard to arrange eight-foot-tall plywood figures on your mantelpiece.
But maybe I shouldn’t be skeptical. People can show astonishing creativity. There were no Christmas trees in Bethlehem. No flying reindeer. No Santas. But I’ve seen them all in Nativity scenes.
My own family’s (indoor) Nativity scene includes camels purchased in Jerusalem, a cow bought in Oberammergau, and a hippo from a safari in Africa. Along with an Irish Setter, a polar bear, and a dolphin.
And I personally wouldn’t hesitate to add a small Buddha from Thailand, and an elephant god from India – Ganesh, the patron of hospitality. I think they’d both feel at home in a Palestinian stable.
Because I don’t think of Christmas as an exclusively Christian event. Not anymore. A decade or so ago, some of us felt pressured to downplay the Christian connection. We worried about a dominant religion imposing its values on minorities of other faiths. So we sent “Happy Holiday” cards. And offered “Season’s Greetings.”
But I see that Jewish friends down the block have a Christmas tree. So do a couple of Moslem families, Syrian refugees sponsored by our church. The local Baha’i congregation marks the birth of Christ in their services. And most of our Christmas songs were written by Jews.
None of them seem to feel that someone else’s religion is being rammed down their throats.
So let’s put out whatever seems to belong in our understanding of the story. As Kenn said, the important thing is that it promotes “love, peace, joy, and hope.”
Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Now for letters about last week’s column.
Jill Weckesser informed me that “the beautiful story of the woman who knew she’d die when the last leaf fell is actually an adaptation of the very touching story ‘The Last Leaf,’ written by O. Henry.
“Wikipedia summarized it thus: ‘It tells the story of an old artist who saves the life of a young artist, dying of pneumonia, by giving her the will to live. She can see an ivy plant through the window gradually losing its leaves, and has taken it into her head that she will die when the last leaf falls. Seemingly, it never does fall, and she survives. We learn that in reality the vine lost all its leaves. What she thought she saw was a leaf, painted on the wall with perfect realism, by the old artist. The old artist dies of pneumonia contracted while being out in the wet and cold, painting the last leaf. The old artist who saves the girl is the great Behrman.’
“I find this so fitting at this time, when a beloved way-too-young family member is coming to the end of her life. I wish I could paint a leaf to keep her alive, but cancer is ruthless, and she’s fought so hard for so long ...”
David Gilchrist commented on final moments: “As a minister, I have shared final moments with a few (including my late wife); and it is such a peaceful experience! If more people could have that experience (as they used to do before we sent everyone to the hospital at the end of their lives), fewer people would fear death. A long as I can continue to contribute, filling in the odd pulpit supply, singing in a couple of choirs, etc.; I'm content to stick around, even now at 90. But when these abilities are finally lost, I look forward to the hour of departure.”
Laurna Tallman assured me, “You can pray for your tree. It has been proven that plant life responds to prayer. But the result might be that the leaves cling longer. Pray for its health and see what happens. And let us know.”
Laurna also commented, “It troubles me that a PhD in philosophy is considered suitable qualification for work in, say, hospitals where one is called on to [deal with issues of] life and death, or when a degree in psychology is considered qualification for grief counselling in the aftermath of mass murders in a school. The church seems in many ways to have abdicated its responsibility to the people dwelling in the mess in which our societies find themselves. ‘Politically correct’ now means ‘religiously neutral,’ which is a contradiction in terms. Why have so many people come to think the politically correct thing to do or say also is superior in moral or religious terms?”
Again, this Sunday’s psalm reading is not a psalm, but an excerpt from the prophet Isaiah (12:2-6)
2 God has rescued us from our arid deserts;
Nothing terrifies me any more.
I sing of the God who comes like living water.
3 From the deepest recesses of our souls, celebration gushes forth,
4 It spills out across an anguished land,
As an awed people pour out praises.
5 Their voices rise, like water in the well:
"Glory to God, who creates springs of life in the deserts of death."
6 So let praise pour out like the living water from the well in our midst,
the well that is our God.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet