Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Picking the Blanket Back Up

The congregation I serve, Trinity Lutheran-Fort Worth, sits at the intersection of three major roads in western downtown. Around the circle of this intersection are world class art museums, performance spaces, a medical center, CVS drug store, a McDonald's, and our mid-century modern church building. Everyday tens of thousands of cars drive by, hundreds of cars sit in the drive thru lane at McDonalds, and there is rarely quiet and certainly little or no silence.

This location impacts our ministry and has impacted me as a minister. In fact, it has resulted in creating my favorite 15 minutes of the ministry year, the 15 minutes after the last parishioner has left from our final Christmas Eve service.

I make sure, on Christmas Eve, to be the last person (with perhaps the exception of one of our homeless neighbors seeking shelter in our courtyard) to leave the church campus. I do this because in that time, that 15 minutes, close to midnight, there is silence in our busy intersection. There are few to no cars, the museums and medical center are closed, even the CVS and McDonalds are closed. In that blessed quiet, for 15 minutes, the last word on this intersection is the word that Christ has been born, the savior has come, peace between God and humanity, the angels have proclaimed it, fear not.

These 15 minutes came to mind yesterday when I read Jason Soroski's succinct and thoughtful blog post "Just Drop the Blanket: The Moment You Never Noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas." He hits a chord with people, including myself, by finding a moment in a well loved classic that can, even after 50 years, proclaim anew the good news to us. The jist of it is, when Linus speaks those famous words from the angels, "Fear not," he drops his blue security blanket for the first time. In like regard then, Soroski encourages us to see that "The birth of Jesus allows us to simply drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to Him instead."

The response to this post has been strong and largely positive in the 48 hours since he uploaded it and for good reason. We need to be encouraged, to be taught again, as we teach the TLCC children in chapel that when angels come they say "Don't be afraid!" God is coming, you don't have to fear. In fact, we are doing such a good job of that just this week our school director received this email from a parent. "Our daughter told my husband and me yesterday that angels watch over us and protect us.  Thank you for teaching the kids such wonderful things that positively impact their lives!"             

When we recognize God has come for us, that we need not be afraid, indeed we can, as Soroski encourages us, drop the blanket of temporal security and live in God's peace. This sense of peace is why I love that 15 minutes after the last Christmas Eve service. The liturgy (the work of the people praising God) has been done. Good news has been proclaimed. My family is home safely in their beds. There is quiet on our busy intersection. Do not be afraid. I drop my security blanket and can almost hear the angels over Fort Worth.

But here is the problem with building a theology around that image and that moment, it doesn't last.

Linus completes his speech, walks over to Charlie Brown, and says "That is the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown," and immediately picks up his blanket and sticks his thumb (like my 3 year old) back into his mouth. The inbreaking of that peaceful moment, the dropping of the blanket, is not permanent in Linus' life just as the peace of that 15 minutes on Christmas Eve isn't permanent for me.

We live in the now, we wait upon the "not yet." In this now we get experiences of the "not yet," inbreakings of God's kingdom. These can come on Christmas Eve, or when we receive the Holy Eucharist and hear once again "given and shed FOR you," or it can happen in a particularly grace filled conversation with a friend, etc...

These experiences of the "not yet" like Linus had on that cartoon stage 50 years ago help sustain us and encourage us through life. But Charles Shultz was too good a theologian, I believe, to have Linus cast his blanket aside in that moment for all time. That sort of conversion moment would be good TV but it wouldn't be real life.

If we as teachers and preachers encourage our communities to expect that peaceful moment, that experience of the "not yet," to transcend the realities of life we risk turning gospel into law. We risk being one more voice that tells folks that if they just get Christmas right this year all will be well. The pain and grief and loss, the illness and broken relationships, the addictions and mistrust, the self-doubt, etc... will just go away. That with enough faith we can just drop that blanket and trust Christ who will replace it all and in so doing we once again make ourselves the actors in receiving God's peace.

To be fair, I don't think Soroski is that simplistic in his theology. His blog post is about a third the length of this. He was going for, and achieved, impact. Yet, I think perhaps he misunderstands what Linus' blanket is for. Is it a burden? In his formulation it is. However, one could also see this blanket as a tool to survive this challenging world. To do ministry and walk with, as Linus so often does, the Charlie Browns in our lives.

When we as leaders talk to people about theology and life we must be careful. Nuance is important and making sure God, not us, is the actor is of primary importance. To be sure we don't separate those moments of inbreaking peace from "the real world" in which we cling to temporal security, and for good reason. Life in this world is hard, sometimes I need a security blanket, I need that temporal reminder of God's grace to get through ministry and carry on.

We live in the reality of the now, waiting on the "not yet." As the wonderful hymn "Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service" reminds us...
                                          Still your children wander homeless;
                                          still the hungry cry for bread;
                                          still the captives long for freedom;
                                          still in grief we mourn our dead.

In those 15 minutes after Christmas Eve I sense the inbreaking of God's peace in my life. For a moment God takes that need for a temporal blanket of security away and gives me a sense of true security and peace. Yet I also know that within a couple hundred yards of me there is probably a homeless neighbor sleeping and I have a responsibility to know if he/she has a blanket, that the broken relationships my parishioners suffer won't just be healed in the morning, that even in the place of Jesus' birth, Bethlehem, there is little peace. The inbreaking comes, I experience peace, but then I pick back up my blanket and like Linus, to sooth myself, stick my proverbial thumb in my mouth so I can sleep in the midst of all these temporal realities.

We need moments like Linus had on stage. Moments when God breaks in and takes the blanket away. But as pastors and leaders we must always keep in mind the expectations we place on those hearing our words. We must not make gospel into law. We do not drop the blanket, God takes it from it. In the words "For You" God takes away our reliance on the things of this world and reminds us, in the now, of the coming "not yet." We rejoice in those moments, but we do so knowing the day after Christmas will come. The day of St. Stephen, the day of the first martyr, who served those in need, who was murdered before Saul. The next day comes and in this now, still in grief we mourn our dead.

Christmas is a wonderful gift given to us by God to remind us that God is always for us. Our blankets that we cling to in this life do not replace God but often give us the courage to serve God in this world of grief and sin. To sooth ourselves a bit so we can do that which God has called us to do in this life. To serve our neighbor and not lose heart. To know that moment is gospel and not law and that when we pick up the blanket again, we are not failing.

So may you have a blessed Christmas. May you experience that moment of "not yet," may God grant you that blessed peace, and then, pick up that blanket, and go and serve as Stephen did.

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