Advent: The Musical
The picture you see to your right was taken by me whilst sitting on the balcony of the 1st Baptist Church of Orlando. I was sitting with a group from my church who had journeyed together to see FBCO's spectacular "Singing Christmas Tree" concert. If you look closely you can see the words "Imagine" projected on to the massive curtains on the stage. That was the theme for the show..."Imagine."
Before I go any further, I have to say that I enjoyed parts of the show. But here's the thing... the fact that I could leave FBCO and say, "Man, I enjoyed the show," was a bit disconcerting. I mean...it's a church, right? Ah well, maybe I am just being a theological elitist. What's a few dance numbers among believers, right?
I have to tell you, the show was professional. It had dancers, singers, elaborate sets, props, and costumes---not to mention purloined Broadway tunes (they used a song from the original Willy Wonka movie). My four year-old kid got a kick out of it. He also enjoys the Lion King show at Disney World, and "Wow-Wow Wubzy" on Nick Jr. There was this whole Cirque du Soleil thing going on with acrobats, ballerinas, dancing stuffed animals and the like for the first part of the show. Throughout the performance there was a guy who "narrated" the thing and always managed to tie even the most manic of dance numbers together with a Christian message.
At one point there were actors playing Mary and Joseph who ended up high on a pedestal, bathed in white light. Below them, actors wearing modern clothing would enter the stage, and then become transfixed by the Nativity scene high above them. The actors' costumes depicted people from all walks of life. There were older adults, young families, a bride and groom, shoppers, people in African dress, football players, businessmen and women and a man dressed in military fatigues. When he stepped on to the stage a huge cheer went up from the largely white, conservative show attendees. Even I got a lump in my throat, but I probably was coming from a different place. I found myself thinking about how so many men and women in uniform would not be home for Christmas because none of us seem to be able to get our act together when it comes to real peace.
I get what the directors of the show were trying to do. It's not that I don't agree with their motivation either. I understand that they were wanting to show that the true meaning of Christmas is deeper than consumerism, deeper than anything that we have turned it into over the years. I get all that.
The fact that it cost God-only-knows-how-much money to produce a musical to make that point also came to my mind. Additionally, each one of us had spent $15 a ticket to see said musical, and the place was packed. If I had to guess I would say that there were at least 7-8,000 people in the sanctuary. That makes over $100,000 in ticket sales alone, not to mention all of the merchandise that was sold--CDs, DVDs and the like. When you multiply all of that times the number of nights the show was presented (several), we're talking about a tidy chunk of change.
See here, haters, it's not that I have anything against musicals, and I don't have anything against the FBCO charging folk to take in their show. My wife and I saw "We Will Rock You"--the Queen musical---in London a couple of years ago. It was fairly awesome. It had dance numbers, elaborate props, sets, costumes, and more importantly... it had Queen songs. I've also seen and enjoyed the ABBA music inspired "Mama Mia" twice---once in London and once in Chicago. We also have taken in musicals like the "Lion King," "Aida," "Phantom of the Opera," and even an opera or two (wife's idea). Oh, and I saw "Spam-A-Lot" with the original Broadway cast---cooler than cool. All of these events cost us a lot more than $15 per ticket, if you must know. So in the end, I suppose the Singing Christmas Tree extravaganza at FBCO was a fairly good value.
I just wonder if this is what the church should be about, though. The good people at FBCO would argue that their show helps win "the lost" to Christ. They even listed the number of people who had "gotten saved" because of the show in the bulletin. The pastor of the church was there and he brought up the number of folks that, as he characterized it, had "made decisions for Christ," in his pre-show speech.
He also brought it up again during the 20 minute altar call that followed the show itself. Yes, you heard me... twenty...minute...altar...call. It wasn't the altar call itself that really bugged me. I sort of expected it. After all, I was in a Southern Baptist church and I haven't been to any event at a Baptist church that wasn't followed by some sort of invitation. It makes me wonder if they even believe that God could save anyone unless there was an altar call to make it happen.
Which brings me to my real beef:
We all wanted to be entertained and we got more than our money's worth. We sat in our chairs, taking it all in and like good little consumers we enjoyed ourselves and clapped at all the right moments, and commented afterward to one another how great the show was.
Then the pastor stood up and held up a beautifully wrapped gift. He told us that Salvation was like a gift presented to us at Christmas. In order for the gift to truly be a gift, we had to reach out and take it, accept it, unwrap it. I couldn't help but feel a bit icky at that point. It seemed so individualistic and self-centered. It seemed a lot like... well, the way our culture celebrates Christmas.
Americans will spend close to 450 billion dollars this year on Christmas-related things. Our entire culture thrives on consumerism. Consumerism has invaded the sanctuaries of so many churches, and it has taken over our understanding of how God saves. According to the Southern Baptist pastor at the show, Salvation depends on the individual. If they individual doesn't buy it, doesn't take it, doesn't unwrap it----then it's not Salvation. God seems to be relegated to the role of some sort of benevolent, but powerless St. Nick figure who sort of pitifully walks around extending a gift that not very many people accept.
You see, I think a better way of ending the Singing Christmas Tree show would have been if the pastor had stood up and said this...
"Thanks for joining us, thanks for supporting this program that spreads Christmas cheer to lots of people in our community. We want you to know that 100% of the money that we make off of this program goes to feed the hungry, house the homeless and reach out to the needy in our immediate area. You see, church isn't a place that you go--it's what we are. And we believe that in order to be the church we need to give ourselves away.
We also want you to know that despite all of the glitz and glamour of this production, the real meaning of Christmas--Jesus---was born in an ancient Palestinian stable---a cave behind a simple dwelling. His parents were homeless refugees. His mother was a young girl who almost certainly had been shunned by her family and lifelong friends for being pregnant out of wedlock. His 'father' was a man, who was dealing with the fact that his future wife's baby was not his own. They were oppressed by their government, forgotten by society. The only people who celebrated Jesus' birth on that night was a group of filthy shepherds, people who were so marginal that no decent person in Jewish society would have anything to do with them.
This is the real meaning of Christmas---that God's salvation is so unbelievable, so incredible, so beyond our understanding. God's salvation came to the most lowly, most marginalized, poorest, most broken people imaginable. The good news of peace, love, joy and hope descended on those who by any culture's standards were the most unworthy.
You know, God's salvation is like realizing that you have been given the most incredible gift that you could ever imagine. And its been sitting on the shelf of your closet your entire life. And one day, you were looking for something else in that closet and you finally saw it. And you knew that you were loved---you, the most unworthy, broken...lost person that you know. You knew right then that God had loved you and claimed you since before you were born. And the thought of that makes you feel peace and joy and hope and love like you have never felt in your whole life.
I know it might sound strange, given the circumstances and the fact that we all came here today to be entertained, to hear good music and see a nice family show... but if today was the day that you discovered that gift in your closet, maybe you should tell someone about it. Don't wait. Tell the pastor of your church, or your closest friend. Tell your spouse or your kids. Just tell someone because it's important to talk about these things.
Anyway, have a wonderful Christmas and may God bless each and every one of you.
I can dream, I suppose.