Merry Chris-... uh, happy holidays

Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When I was a student at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California, I regularly visited a place called "Marin Coffee Roasters," just a couple of blocks from campus. Marin Coffee Roasters is Marin's version of Starbucks, except that the lattes and scones were significantly better (note: you can find many a Starbucks in Marin County, but in San Anselmo-where housing is five-times higher than in Juneau-chains are avoided in favor of local businesses; think hoity-toity).

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On one beautiful, bright Christmas morning, I went to buy some morning brew at the Roasters. I placed my order, and when the barista handed it to me, I said, "Merry Christmas!" The barista shot me a glare, and said "I am not a Christian!"

As a seminary student in San Anselmo - a city where only five percent of the population attends a worship service of any kind - I should have known better than to assume everyone around me celebrated Christmas with the same spiritual high as I did. I suppose that growing up in southeast Missouri-where it seemed everybody went to church - I might have been excused for assuming that everybody, everywhere, shared a faith similar to mine. But by then, I was well acquainted with religious diversity. Prior to starting seminary, I had directed programs in international education for nearly 10 years. In that role, I had visited a dozen other countries, and had been a guest in the homes of Japanese Buddhists, Turkish Muslims, and other examples of our world's cultural and religious diversity.

Living out one's faith in a diverse world calls for some good, old-fashioned hospitality. This doesn't mean we all have to water-down our individual faith traditions in order to reach some politically correct, lowest common denominator; a unity that sacrifices diversity is more than just boring - it's lifeless.

As a Christian, I ask, "What would Jesus do?" Since Christians are about as diverse as the world itself, the answer to that question must needs be an individual one, or else I'm committed to finding an equally boring, equally lifeless, common denominator among Christians. I study Christian history, explore Christian diversity, and listen to what other Christians think, but in the end, like everyone, I have to answer this question in a way that is honest and authentic for me.

When I think about Jesus and hospitality, I think about the Samaritan woman at the well in the fourth chapter of John's gospel. The woman apparently believed in the religious traditions of her community, even though those same traditions oppressed and demeaned her as a human being. Jesus' request for hospitality startled her, so she said, "We Samaritans worship on this mountain, but you Jews worship in Jerusalem." Jesus responded by saying, in effect, "Worshiping on this or that mountain is not what religion is about. God seeks those who worship in spirit and in truth."

So, what do I think Jesus would do if he walked into Marin Coffee Roasters on a bright, Christmas morning? First, he'd ask for some hospitality: "May I have a coffee, please," and maybe even, "make it a decaf(!)" Then, rather than invite the barista to celebrate Jesus' birthday, he'd find some way to awaken in the barista a sense of worth and well-being that motivated him to walk away from the espresso machine, straight to some of his closest friends, and give them a hug.

Henny Youngman said that he once wanted to become an atheist, but he gave it up because they have no holidays. Whether the days ahead be holidays or holy days for you, may all the happiness in the world be yours.

• Jesse Perry is the pastor at Northern Light United Church.

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