It’s Christmas Day, and so it’s the perfect day to talk about shit.
I’ve probably already lost some of you, because you don’t think preachers are supposed to use such words. But for those who aren’t already writing my Bishop (feel free) read along….
Artists can get away with such words better than preachers. That’s probably sad but true. So, please find two artistic renderings of the word “shit” in relation to the Christmas story…
First, this drawing from David Hayward, known to many of you as “The Naked Pastor.”
It’s one of my favorite renderings of the Nativity scene, ever. I love it because it strips away the far too holy patina that churches, theologians, and even secular culture place around the story.
We draw these pictures of halos, throngs of angels, holy light. And Christmas is *most definitely* about light. But if we focus *only* on the spiritual light, that “holy patina” can get so thick, we fail to see the humanity. And the humanity of the Christmas story is a story that came to “Nobodies, Animals, Unclean, Foreigners” and yes…included a lot of shit.
What this should tell us is that God’s gracious incarnation doesn’t come to the perfect places in our lives, it comes into the places where everything seems shitty too, into places we humans decide are unclean and messy.
As Frederick Buechner once said, the problem with most Christians is that we spend too much time trying to be holier than God. He’s 100% correct in this. And that’s because of the very dynamic I’ve just been describing.
The big, fancy theological way to say it is: We humans fail to realize that God’s incarnation is alway mediated through people. And people are messy, because people are human.
From the time of the “first perfect garden,” there were *already* things like talking snakes inside God’s “perfect” creation.
I put “perfect” in quotes, because human perfection always includes things that not only feel less than perfect, they feel outright shitty.
Buechner —a Christian minister himself— once wrote a long treatise on all of this, in novels that collectively are called “The Book of Bebb.” In this section, Leo Bebb, a relatively shady evangelist, is talking with Antonio about a conversation he had with a third man, named Roebuck.
It’s pretty deep, if you have the ears to hear it…
“Bebb said, “That man knows his history, Antonio. It’s his special subject, and he knows it inside and out. He reeled off a whole list of times and places where he said we’d met before. He told about the days they had children eight, ten years old and up working in mines like pack mules maybe twelve hours in a stretch till their pitiful little bodies were nothing but skin and bones and they couldn’t hardly se in the daylight while people like me went on looking the other direction and preaching they kingdom come. He told about the days they tore the living flesh off people with red-hot tongs and broke their legs with hammers because they didn’t believe like they should about doctrine. He went on how those old-time crusaders used religion for an excuse to rape women and raise hell and how back in slavery times there was ministers of the Gospel owned slaves just like everybody else and proved out of scripture it was the way things was meant to be. I don’t suppose there was a single miserable thing anybody ever did in the name of Jesus that Roebuck didn’t spell out chapter and verse before he was done. He enjoyed it. You could tell from the way he worked his face what a good time he was having…”
“”You take a word like shit, Antonio. A preacher isn’t even supposed to know there is those kind of words, and Roebuck, he thought he’d throw me a curve just using it. I said, ‘Roebuck, you think I don’t know about shit? What you’ve been telling me about isn’t even a millionth part of all the shit there is because you’ve stuck to just the religious shit, and that’s only one kind of all there is because piled up right alongside it there’s a million other kinds….You take anything people have ever done in this world, and the best you can say about any of it is that it’s maybe one part honest and well-meant and the other nine parts shit. If I close my eyelid down on all the shit there is in the world, I’ve still got to face up to all the shit there is in me, because I’m full of it too, Roebuck. I’m not denying it. And you’re full of it. It’s the shit in us is part of what makes us brothers, you and me.’ I used that word shit to him till it begun to sound like I invented it.”
“”He caught me by surprise. I caught him by surprise. A preacher talking about things like – Antonio, shit is what preachers have been talking about since Moses except the word they’re more like to use is sin. Only Roebuck didn’t know that. It shut him up for a minute. Then he said, ‘If the world’s mostly shit, Bebb, where’s God?’ Just like that – where’s God?‘
“”I said, ‘I’ll tell you about shit, Roebuck. Take it from an expert. There’s two main things about it. One thing is it’s stink and corruption and waste. The other thing is if you don’t pile it up too thick in any one place, it makes the seeds grow.’ I said, ‘Roebuck, God’s where there’s seeds growing. God’s where there’s something no bigger than the head of a pin starting to inch up out of the stink and dark of shit towards the light of day.’ I said, ‘Roebuck, God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son down here into the shit with the rest of us so something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.’”
This week, I’m aware that some churches I know have done some good stuff for the homeless in our world. Over at Oak Lawn UMC, Rachel Griffin Baughman and a slew of volunteers have been housing our homeless neighbors. Myself and Andrew McGregor have been driving our Kessler Park United Methodist Church van around to try to find folks. Below is a pic of a place we visited this week.
If you’re in Dallas and Oak Cliff, these places are very close to you. I’m also aware that up in Denver, our brother Ben Anderson David Hensley has been housing folks in their church too, and you’ll see a pic of that too.
On Christmas Eve eve, we were in Oak Lawn, talking to Ryan Wager, when a volunteer came up and said “Somebody just vomited in the bathroom.”
Yep…that’s it right there.
I’m not at all suggesting that working with the homeless is the only way to experience God’s incarnational grace.
But I’m hopefully reminding you that, whatever else is going on in your life, God is not only present in that holy, Christmas Eve moment when we sing Silent Night and light our candles. (Pic below of last night…)
Yes, of course, God is present there. God, by definition, must be.
But God is *also* present in all times and places. God is present in the vomit of a church bathroom.
God is present in your home this holiday…whether everything has gone according to plan, or whether nothing feels as you think it should.
Buechner’s revisioning of John 3: 16 has it just right:
“God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son down here into the shit with the rest of us so something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.’”
That’s the Christmas message of God’s incarnational love for all of God’s children and God’s world.
And whenever we Christians are blessed to stop trying to be “more holy than God,” we gain the tremendous blessing of seeing God’s Spirit working alongside human flesh, in all places and at all times, in God’s chaotic, beautiful world.
Merry Christmas, everybody.