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Exhibit One: Once while spending the weekend at my college roommate’s home, we worshipped at his Nazarene Church. Small, sincere, and pure holiness. The “old” pastor—he was probably at least 60—was a simple guy who may have had a two year Bible college degree. His sermon was on why Christians should have joy but not fun. I think I’m still recovering.
No doubt part of my visceral reaction was my being, at that time, a condescending collegian. And part of it may have been that this was my first encounter with the holiness tradition and all its anti-worldliness. But no matter what your age or religious background, there was still something so sad, so dispiriting, so flat, and so predictable about that sermon.
I think I’m still compensating to this day. To many eyes, the congregation I currently serve does not exactly look like fun-city. But honestly, fun is a high value for me at church. Before all you wet-blankets jump in, I know joy is deeper than fun. I know studies show, for example, that youth groups that only have fun have no lasting impact. I’m not suggesting that fun be limited to or defined by grins and belly laughs. A good hymn, a beautiful prayer, even the funeral of a cherished saint, are all by my definition,“fun.” I goad my rather “wordie,” nerdy congregation by frequently using the word “funner” to describe what we want to be.
Exhibit Two: Representing the Reformed Church at a World Council of Churches gathering in Hamburg, Germany, I was part of a group that visited a prominent Lutheran congregation. The minister was eloquent and erudite. He spoke smoothly about the openness of his church—not confined by restrictive and petty doctrine, appreciating all perspectives, hospitable to skeptics and secularists. A tour of the building ended in their chancel where he pointed proudly to the new paraments on the pulpit and table. He went on and on, explaining everything in great detail, pummeling any mystery or beauty out of the art while proclaiming how meaningful it was to his parishioners. When he finished, an Orthodox priest drolly inquired, “I notice on questions of christology or ecclesiology you are very open and indefinite. Yet on your paraments you are very precise and unbending. Why is that? What should that tell us?”
Both of these memories from long ago come to mind as we once again enter the season of Advent. And once again, I wrestle with my Advent ambivalence. I wish Advent was funner!
Of course there is a place for penitence and patience. Jeremiah and John the baptizer are part of our story. I don’t want to sing Rudolph or Frosty in worship, or even Silent Night last Sunday. I’m inclined to be severely critical of commercialism and sentimentality at any time of year. I’m prone to be rather Grinch-ish toward Christmas in general. I don’t want to capitulate to culture and tinsel. Having said all that—and I could say much more—I’m not convinced that keeping Advent pure is worth it, is necessary, and isn’t more about snobbery than anything else.
Those who “appreciate” Advent often seem not so different than that joyless Nazarene preacher expounding joy over fun. One wears cowboy boots and a bolo tie, while the others wear tweed or clerics. But both feel like finger-wagging fun-police. Four weeks of somberness for twelve days of celebration?
The church doesn’t need to go into full Christmas-mode on December 1, but what are we unbending and authoritative about? Paraments? Hymns? These things aren’t unimportant, but neither are they the heart of the Gospel. Can’t we keep the broad tone of Advent, while also trying to make Advent just a bit funner?