Monday, November 29, 2010

The First Sunday of Advent in Ramallah, Palestine

I woke up yesterday morning and got ready to go to church at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah, one of the congregations in the ELCJHL. I needed to leave by 9:00 to make sure I was able to be there by 10:30 when the service started. Although Ramallah is only 17.5 miles from Jerusalem, it takes at least 1 hour to get there by bus, because the Palestinian buses are not allowed to drive on the Israeli roads once they leave the municipality of Jerusalem.

As I quickly checked my email, I found the following “poem”:

Twas the month before Chris tmas
When all through our land,
Not a Chris tian was praying
Nor taking a stand.
See the PC Police had taken away
The reason for Chris tmas - no one could say.
The children were told by their schools not to sing
About Shepherds and Wise Men and Angels and things.
It might hurt people's feelings, the teachers would say
December 25th is just a ' Holiday '.
Yet the shoppers were ready with cash, checks and credit
Pushing folks down to the floor just to get it!
CDs from Madonna, an X BOX, an I-Pod
Something was changing, something quite odd!
Retailers promoted Ramadan and Kwanzaa
In hopes to sell books by Franken & Fonda.
As Targets were hanging their trees upside down
At Lowe's the word Chris tmas - was no where to be found.
At K-Mart and Staples and Penny's and Sears
You won't hear the word Chris tmas; it won't touch your ears.
Inclusive, sensitive, Di-ver-si-ty
Are words that were used to intimidate me.
Now Daschle, Now Darden, Now Sharpton, Wolf Blitzen
On Boxer, on Rather, on Kerry, on Clinton !
At the top of the Senate, there arose such a clatter
To eliminate Jesus, in all public matter.
And we spoke not a word, as they took away our faith
Forbidden to speak of salvation and grace
The true Gift of Chris tmas was exchanged and discarded
The reason for the season, stopped before it started.
So as you celebrate 'Winter Break' under your 'Dream Tree'
Sipping your Starbucks, listen to me.
Choose your words carefully, choose what you say
not Happy Holiday !
Please, all Chris tians join together and wish everyone you meet
Christ is The Reason for the Chris-tmas Season!
If you agree please forward, if not, simply delete.
(Spelling and division of words, e.g, Chris-tmas(?) in the original)

This poem stopped me dead in my tracks. As I sat at the table, I thought about the congregation I was going to go visit. A congregation of Christians that exists in a land where the government has decided which religion is the “right” religion, and it is not Christianity. I thought about the people in that congregation whose families have been Christians for 2000 years, the families who first became Christians when Christ actually walked here in Jerusalem. I thought about how those families can only travel to Jerusalem if they have the right color permit. I thought about how the members of that congregation can’t get to hospitals whenever they need to because they live on the wrong side of a 30 foot high concrete wall that was unilaterally built by a Government that has decided which religion is the “right” religion. Frankly, I wondered how Christians in my own country could truly advocate what is written in this poem, in the name of Christ. And so, I have composed the following response:

Nothing that is mentioned in this poem can take your faith away, - not the PC Police, not the Senate, not the courts, not schools, not authors and not retailers. Only you can allow any of these things to take your faith away.

If you believe that the reason for Christmas is lost, or the faith of children is undermined by the absence of singing about "shepherds and wise men and angels and things" in school, please spend more time singing these hymns with the children you know and bring them to worship each Sunday so their faith can be reinforced and strengthened. Please set an example for them by living out Christ every day by being as open, loving, and accepting as Christ was to everyone he encountered except to those who judged others. And, if you are offended by the materiality of Christmas, then opt out of the shopping madness and have a Christmas without gifts for anyone but the poor and the needy.

As for the idea that sensitive, inclusive and diversity are words that are used to intimidate, I can think of no one who better exemplified sensitivity, inclusivity and diversity than Christ did. Look at that rag-tag bunch of fellows he picked up to be his first disciples - talk about a diverse group. And even more so, his followers ALWAYS included sinners, outcasts and those that society deemed to be "those people", just as Muslims (Ramadan), African-Americans (Kwanzaa), and gays are considered to be "those people" by the people who, in this poem, lament the absence of the word "Christmas." I believe that Christ would be appalled by the complete absence of sensitivity, inclusivity, and I'd be willing to bet, diversity of the person or persons that wrote this poem.

Also, I cannot understand how requiring religious displays on civic property in December to represent all religions, not just Christianity, somehow constitutes taking away “the reason for Christmas” or "eliminating Jesus in all public matter." Jesus has not been eliminated by the inclusion of symbols or other religions, he has been added to. What a generosity of faith it shows to include others at a time when they have been historically excluded. What better way to demonstrate what it REALLY means to be a Christian than to lovingly and openly welcome those who look different, act different, talk different and YES, believe differently. If we are able to do this, then Jesus has not been eliminated from all public matter, he has been glorified, he has been exemplified and he has been worshipped in the most public of ways.

Let me also respond to the phrase, "they took away our faith, forbidden to speak of salvation and grace, the true gift of Christmas was exchanged and discarded, the reason for the season stopped before it started." I believe that the beauty of salvation and grace is that they exist irrespective of whether they are not mentioned, they are whispered about in private places or they are shouted from the mountain tops. So even if we were forbidden to speak of them, which we are not, they would still exist for everyone. As for it taking away your faith, I repeat what I said at the beginning, no one can take your faith away unless YOU allow it to happen.

Finally, the true gift of Christmas is not a crèche on the lawn of City Hall, it is not a Christmas tree hung right side up, it is not children singing hymns in a public school, it is not even a church building or the institution of church. The true gift of Christmas is Christ himself who called us to justice, to kindness, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If each of us were able to do that, then whether we choose to call December 25th, Christmas or a holiday or something else, it will not matter because the Kingdom of Christ will have arrived and all these other differences will fall away and not matter.

As I attended church at Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah yesterday, the entire service was in Arabic and I understood not ONE word. Nevertheless, I still knew that I was among my Christian brothers and sisters. They are not concerned with whether December 25th is referred to as Christmas or a holiday, they are not concerned about stores and which way they hang their Christmas trees, they don’t spend time fretting over being able to include Nativity scenes on the lawns of City Hall. No, what the members of Lutheran Church of Hope are concerned about is the freedom to worship as they choose; they seek not to be disregarded by the “right” religion, as this poem seeks to disregard those who are not the “right” religion. They simply want the right to be regarded as God’s children, deserving of the same respect and dignity as those who belong to the “right” religion in Israel. And, I knew that this congregation understood the meaning of Advent, expectantly awaiting the coming of Christ, who welcomes all to his table.

Merry Christmas to you and Happy Holidays to those whose beliefs, although different from mine, are just as strong and important to them as yours are to you.


  1. This is awesome. It is really great to be following you and your ministry. I am always glad to hear your spunky clear voice. Thought you might like Kelly's blog today in light of this wonderful reflection!!!