December 4, 2008

Dear Centenary friends,

Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote the poem, ?Christ Climbed Down?, in 1958. This poem, which I have had in my files for more than 20 years, makes my head swim. Very rarely does poetry have this sort of emotional impact on me. ?Christ Climbed Down? makes me pause, think, contemplate, reflect. The poem challenges me intellectually, theologically, spiritually.

You will find the images thought-provoking, maybe even a little disturbing, because the poem forces us to think about the Incarnation in new ways. The poem takes us to a deeper reflection on the nature of God and the nature of the Christ. It is my all-time favorite Christmas poem. Every time I read this poem, I see something new. I give you Ferlinghetti?s poem, ?Christ Climbed Down?, as a gift.

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody's imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carollers
groaned of a white Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary's womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody's anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest of
Second Comings

Now read the poem again. Then, later on, read it a third time.

This Sunday I will be preaching a sermon focused around Incarnational process theology. That is a bunch of fancy preacher talk, I know. Here is my outline: God did something ? God is doing something ? God will do something. The sermon is about God breaking into the world. Our carol of the week is Away In a Manger. I hope you will be present? and I hope you will invite a friend.

Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell

Love God. Love Others. Love Yourself. Serve.


December 10, 2008

Dear Centenary friends,

Christmas does not have to be perfect. Yet we are seduced by the message that you can buy the perfect gift, or receive the perfect gift, or serve the perfect meal, or eat the perfect meal, or be surrounded by the perfect loving family, or be perfectly loving and tranquil ourselves. Don?t believe it because it just ?ain?t? so. The tree does not need to be perfect? nor the decorations? nor does the house need to be perfectly clean? nor does everything have to be merry and bright.

The key player in Luke?s birth narrative is Mary and that first Christmas had to be traumatic on many levels for her. We have a tendency to superimpose our mistaken impressions of her as we look back in time. We see her as peaceful, beatific, dressed in pastels (usually light blue). The accuracy of our perception should be questioned.

Here we have an unexplained teenage pregnancy and an engagement that nearly is ended. My guess is that some of those close to Mary thought she was loony because she was talking with angels. Then she had to make an uncomfortable trip to Bethlehem, could not find a room, gave birth in a barn, had to flee to Egypt because Herod threatened to kill her son. Now let?s think about this. The distance from Jerusalem to Cairo is 264 miles. If you travel 3 miles an hour for 8 hours per day (which, frankly, would have been a bit much for a teenage mom who had just given birth), it would take 11 straight days to make the journey. Easy? Peaceful? No way!

We need not expect Christmas to be perfect, when the power and joy of Christ?s coming are expressed by our God in such hidden ways. We need not expect our part in God?s work to be any clearer to us than Mary?s was to her. We are called to get ready for God?s coming not by making frantic preparations but by simply clearing space, ?preparing the way of the Lord.?

Mary is not asked to arrange everything nor is she asked to provide the perfect environment for the birth of the Messiah. All God asked of Mary is her consent: she is asked to place herself in God?s hands, give God room to work, make herself available to whatever God is planning. She does not hide her surprise; she does not suppress her questions. She wonders out loud what God could possibly have in mind by asking her to conceive and bear the Savior under these conditions. And then?. And then? And then? she says, ?Yes.?

The ?yes? did not turn out as she expected. It never does. Every ?yes? involves complications, and trouble, and misunderstandings, and hard work, and hurt feelings, and successes, and failures. And sometimes ?yes? brings us to a point of anguish.

We are not called to wrestle out of the chaos of our lives the perfect family Christmas, or the perfect spiritual moment, or even the perfect contemplative emptiness in which to welcome the Savior. Our calling is more like Mary?s: to wonder what God could possibly have in mind, and then to say ?Yes? and take what comes.

Worship is a blessing to me. I look forward to hearing Beth preach this Sunday about ?My Favorite Things.? Plan to be present!

Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell

Love God. Love Others. Love Yourself. Serve.


 December 17, 2008

Dear Centenary friends,

My friend, Jim Harnish, pastors a church in Florida.  Jim tells the story of attending one of those huge extravaganza events at Disney World where throngs of high school kids are brought in to provide music during the Christmas Season.  Crowds gathered at the train station in front of the Magic Kingdom.  The lights were dimmed and the procession of more than one thousand high school choir members commenced.

They came, four abreast wearing choir robes and carrying battery-powered candles.  Singing as they processed, the high school students finally joined the Disney Orchestra in Town Square.  They packed the risers and formed a ?singing? Christmas tree.  The director lifted the baton and everyone sang ?O Come, All Ye Faithful, joyful and triumphant??

Many other Christmas carols were a part of the program, but it ended with the traditional ?Hallelujah Chorus?.  We preachers are prone to cynicism on occasion.  (Be assured that I write that sentence as confession on my part.)  Jim wondered if any of the high school singers understood or connected with what they were singing.  Was this experience for them about a free trip to Orlando, free admission to Disney World, and hanging out with friends?  Did they understand at all?

While the ?Hallelujah Chorus? was being sung, Jim caught sight of a blond soprano on the second row of the risers.  The chorus sang softly, ?The kingdom of this world is become? and then burst into full voice, ?The Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and of His Christ!?  At that moment, Jim saw tears streaming down her cheeks and dripping on her choir robe.  Her lips quivered as she sang, ?and he shall reign forever and ever.?  Deep inside, this high school student had grasped the gravity and truth of the moment.  Jim wrote, ?Christmas came for me as I witnessed those tears.?

What causes you to pause?  What stirs your soul?  Are you open to the unexpected?  The baby, Jesus, wants to turn your world upside down!  This baby wants to turn our hearts inside out!  Status quo is not good enough!

A light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not, cannot, and will not snuff it out. 

May Christmas sneak up on you this year.  And may you recognize God beneath all of God?s surprising disguises.

This Sunday, I will be preaching on ?What Child Is This??  I hope you will be present.  Bring some friends. 

Also? please remember that on Wednesday, December 24, 5 p.m. there will be a Christmas Eve Communion Service at Centenary.  Bring family and friends!

Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell

Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve.