Christians often feel tension as the Christmas season approaches. It shows up in clichés: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Or it shows in debates about the décor of the church. What we instinctively sense is the conflict the demands of the story of Jesus birth and the demands of the commercial season that surrounds Christmas day.
The story of Christ’s birth begins a journey of humility that finds its deepest moment on the cross. It is sacrifice for love’s sake. Along the way Jesus questioned his followers. “where your treasure is there your heart will be also”. The story of the rich young ruler demands that we wonder about possessions and following Jesus. The liturgies of advent – the period of waiting – speak of a longing for the Kingdom to come, of the desire of justice, peace, love and joy. The services remind us of the Christ born into a world of suffering for the sake of redemption. No wonder that in this season churches often encourage an increase in generosity to the poor.
The other Christmas is the commercialized one. Santa Claus and elves are the new family Christmas tradition. Opening the Christmas gift is the new joy. And sacrifice is reduced to a family debt crisis. Christians have felt that a different kingdom was being celebrated and different desires were being pursued.
The conflict is real and felt. Christians live in this tension.
Over the last decades statistics suggest that real earnings of the middle class have not been making any substantial gains relative to inflation. Many thought that by investing – whether of Wall Street or in the housing market – would give the middle class a chance to increase wealth and gain a healthy retirement fund. For many this has not turned out well. Particularly irritating is that many responsible for the collapse - the should have known/ ought to have known people – seem to continue doing very well while many are struggling to make ends meet. Wall Street failed us. So Occupy Wall Street criticizes. And many cheer from the sidelines. And among the criticism is the hint that the lifestyle and values Wall Street promotes are not worth pursuing.
Christians – including those in the financial industry – have often felt unease. There is a tension between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdoms of Wall Street. Answering the question “what is the good life?” will be different depending on the Kingdom one pursues. Being a follower of Christ demands a set of activities and a way of spending resources that is different than the goal of “freedom 55”. This we know. This we feel.
It is in these conflicts and tensions, that spiritual formation takes place. Whose Kingdom do we serve? What is worth celebrating? How do our celebrations affirm our values? How can and are we honest about the sorrows of our lives? How is this moment advent – the time of waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom of Christ? Commitments, values and practices combine to shape a life of following Jesus.
And elders can serve by raising questions that challenge followers of Jesus to deeper faithfulness and by modeling a way of life. Spiritual formation never happens in a vacuum. It always happens when the call of the gospel challenges our habits of thinking and our way of living. Tension alerts us and invites us to pay attention. Amid the tension we can speak words that encourage new faithfulness. Our uncomfortable times can be good times to be formed by the Word and the Spirit.