Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

I’m pretty sure it was Stephen Covey, back in the day (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) who originally said, “The main thing is to let the main thing be the main thing.”  Indeed.

So there I was last week, waiting for a friend to join me at the Bad Ass Coffee shop–there are two in town. If you want coffee, go to Starbucks. If you want to feel somehow a tad bit edgier in Northern California, go to Bad Ass. The background music was the usual 1980’s–style rock with a strong beat behind it. My friend was late, and I was enjoying a few minutes to read when the music suddenly changed. It took me a minute to notice, and then another few seconds for the new song to actually register. Yep, there it was, a classic version of…The Little Drummer Boy. You know, “Come, they told me, pa-rum-pa-pa-pum.”  Full-blown Christmas music in May. The young baristas started laughing and one of them dove for his phone to quickly change the playlist. He sheepishly looked around the shop, our eyes met and I had a good chuckle.  Then I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Christmas in May. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

The Incarnation is the main thing. Period. It doesn’t get any bigger than God appearing in Jesus Christ. It’s the main thing. Call me Christo-centric. I am. Oh, I’m trinitarian, absolutely, I believe in and teach and find in scripture God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit all over the place. But when we really want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. When we need to be reminded of God’s commitment to us, we remember the Incarnation of Jesus. If we are doubting the depth of God’s love for us, we look at the Cross of Jesus. If we wonder what kind of future lies ahead, we tiptoe (or flat-out run, maybe even race if you are Peter and John) to the empty tomb to see evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus.

We have a Christian camp in our area which for decades introduced young people to Jesus, taught what it meant to be a disciple of Christ, and immersed them in worship of the God who came near. Today, they are a camp, not so much a Christian camp. There is a bit of lip service still paid to Jesus, but much more verbiage about sensitivities to all religions, all thought, all expressions, all feelings, all belief, all non-belief. The whole “find-God-within-you, whatever that looks like” school of thinking is on dramatic display. We can no longer recommend that families send their kids there.  It’s as though they don’t have anything to teach our kids, but just try to learn what they want and feel. If I sound cranky or old, it’s only because I am appalled to find that the main thing is so often not the main thing anymore. What have we done with Jesus?

For some reason, everywhere I turn right now I’m hearing the philosopher Charles Taylor referenced. Mostly it’s due to his classic and weighty book from 2007, The Secular Age. Taylor was saying nearly 20 years ago that the real sign of a culture that has moved solidly into secular territory is not that spiritual belief has been eliminated.  No, it is that there are so very many beliefs and humanistic spiritualities that faith in Christ has just become one of many, many options.  If you have questions or wonderings, the first step is to look at the pantheon of possible “deities” and see what fits how you feel or think the best. It’s a veritable smorgasbord out there.

I think this outcome is highlighted by the difference in how two groups might approach framing human and divine identity. One group looks at who God is and then figures out who they are. The other looks at who they think themselves to be and then figures out what God might be like. One tends to put themselves under God’s direction, the other puts God under human direction. One ponders what it is to be made in God’s image, the other ends up with a god who looks much like the person pondering.  If we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. When we lose track of the main thing, we drift to all sorts of unhealthy places.

One problem with my stark dichotomy is the inconsistency in how we human beings behave. I’m keenly aware that, especially in our culture, some people who claim to be strong Christians are the most racist, obnoxious and power-hungry sorts.  It defies reason that a Jesus life could be lived out in this way. HOW we live as we claim Jesus, our love, hospitality and graciousness…is critically important. But THAT we hold onto Jesus, and him alone…is essential.

Perhaps you’ve read A Shining, an intriguing 2023 short novel by Norwegian and Pulitzer-winning author Jon Fosse. A man inexplicably drives his car as far as he can into a forest before getting stuck, exits the car and promptly gets himself lost, on foot with night approaching. Eventually he has what we might call a spiritual encounter and meets…what?  A sort of being who emanates light and peace, and eventually helps him get found.  The author describes the encounter very powerfully, yet something is missing completely. The vague deity is palpable, but unknown and unknowable.

The biblical story contains a great deal of mystery, but is strikingly clear about God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. As bible scholar Jim Edwards likes to say, Romans 5:8 provides us with a concise statement of the gospel in just four words: “Christ died for us.”  Two words of history (Christ died) and 2 words of theology (for us). It is so very powerful.  And again–I repeat myself– notice that the first word is…Christ.  It always is. It has to be. Is it our first word?  When we preach, teach, counsel, lead worship, share with people…what is our first word?  Forgiveness, healing, power, purpose, assurance of a future come in, through and because of Jesus. He’s all we have.

It was May, and 75 degrees outside. The words filled the air and bounced off the chairs and tables in Bad Ass Coffee before they could shut the music off: “Come they told me… Pa rum pum pum pum…a newborn king to see.”  It was perfect–Christmas in May. Let the main thing be the main thing.


Peace of Christ,

Dan Baumgartner

Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as Secretary on The Fellowship Community Board.