The Whole Story: Being Charitable at Christmas

I like Hallmark movies because they always end well, but that’s Hallmark, not life. As much as I would like Christmas to be neat and no needles on the floor, it isn’t reality. There have been Christmases in my family where gifts were thrown out with the wrapping paper. A bummer! There have been toys that didn’t work right out of the box, and macaroni that was too soupy and turkey overcooked and dry. There have been too many deaths.

One family member’s funeral was on the day after Christmas. The death was sudden and shocking in many respects. The death occurred at a paramour’s house. The spouse was greatly disturbed by this and made sure that our kindhearted United Methodist minister was upstaged by a fire and brimstone preacher of a denomination that focused more on guilt than grace. Every other funeral in our family was pretty generic. But, since the spouse had the unkindly preacher dwell on adultery in his comments, for the first time in many funerals, we knew exactly who was in the casket.

It was the truth, but it didn’t need to be said. Payback makes for interesting actions. In the case I’m remembering from Christmas long ago, said spouse was finally “laid to rest” beside the wandering partner. The son of the wanderer made sure that the so-called “rest” didn’t last long, had the person uprooted and the person’s name excised from the granite marker, and his own name inscribed instead. Now, that’s payback.

That was a tough Christmas. We have all had them, and we all need more grace than guilt. Who has the moral high ground to denigrate someone else to the nether regions? Except for the grace of God, there go I. Every time I point my finger at someone else, the majority are pointing back at me. Can’t we cut everybody some slack – especially at Christmas? Nobody ever knows the whole story anyway.

The wonder and mystery of Christmas is that God knows the dirt on everyone, and still chooses to become one of us, live our lives, die our deaths, and rise so that we might rise, too. Sometimes in our fictionalized versions of Christ we make Jesus so majestic and powerful that He can’t identify with us in our weakness. This is much like Aslan the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Hear Aslan roar, but Aslan does die unjustly and the sacrificial stone is cracked, and he is finally resurrected. Aslan is still on the move today if we will notice the underdogs more than we do the magnificent.

Many have heard the story of Barrington Bunny. Perhaps you’ve heard it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Sunday. I almost want to say that I’m sorry that you did because the telling of it can become a preacher’s ploy to play to the “Chreasters,” you know, the Christmas and Easter folks who only come to church twice a year. That is so unfair and such a guilt trip. Thank God for the people who come on the high and holy days. At least they come then. Some of the best people I know are the unsung people who can only muster the time, good health, or energy to get here on Christmas and Easter. You are welcome to come whenever you can. I’d rather assume that you have good reasons, not bad ones, for your choices.

Nevertheless, you can find solace from the story of another underdog who gets the connection between Christmas and Easter and reminds us of Jesus. When most of us want Hallmark and perfect gifts and perfect lives, God dares to say to everyone, “It’s alright if the gifts don’t fit, aren’t age appropriate, or the food is a disaster.” Barrington Bunny is your hero, or, at least one of them.

Barrington is the only bunny in the forest and enjoys hopping about in the snow, perennially looking back to see his hippity-hop designs. He’s furry and warm, but he’s feeling all alone at Christmas, and doesn’t feel gifted or special at all. He hears squirrels chattering up in a tree and asks what they’re doing. They are having a Christmas Party. He wants to join them but can’t since Barrington can hop, not climb. He hears the sounds of joy coming from a beaver’s home as their family celebrates Christmas. Barrington invites himself to the frivolity but isn’t able to swim to get inside.

He is so sad. No parties, no family, just hippity-hop, hippity hop, and then he gets a visit from a great silver wolf. The wolf offers Barrington encouragement and tells him that all of the animals in the forest are his family, and that Barrington does have gifts to share. Then the wolf disappears, and Barrington decides to give gifts to his forest family. He puts a stick and note at the beaver’s saying, “A gift from a member of your family.” He scratches through the snow to find leaves and grass to make the squirrels’ nest warmer and again attaches a note, “A gift from a member of your family.” The wolf’s encouragement gives newfound purpose and family to Barrington.

However, a blizzard is brewing. Snow piles up and Barrington barely hears above the howling wind the small sound of a baby field mouse. The mouse is lost and freezing, but Barrington tells him that his fur is nice and warm and that he will cover the mouse and provide shelter. Barrington has two thoughts, “It’s good to be a bunny who is furry and warm. It’s also good that all the animals in the forest are my family.” The next morning the baby mouse’s family finds him alive and warm under the sadly dead body of Barrington Bunny.

On a cold winter night in Judea we were all given a gift that tells each of us that we’re a part of the same human family. God’s love is as sacrificial as Barrington’s. His gift to us cost Jesus his life when he grew up. May we love others as much and always be charitable. We all need it even if we don’t deserve it. Only God knows the whole story that connects you and me to both Christmas and Easter. What is your gift and who is your family?

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“Fear Not,” Charlie Browns of the World

Our Nativity Scenes conflate the differences in Luke and Matthew in wonderful ways. For one, we have the Magi from Matthew mixing with the Shepherds from Luke. There are differences, of course. Matthew has Jesus in a house and Luke has the birth in a stable. Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus goes back to Abraham and Luke’s all the way back to Adam. There are theological reasons for their differences, but, more than that, the differences highlight their primary emphases: Matthew and Luke wanted to present the facts of Jesus’ birth in ways that engaged their audiences.

Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, hence the genealogy going back to Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews (Arabs, too, through Ishmael). Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than the other Gospel writers, somewhere around four to one. All this focus on the Jewish people, fulfillment of Jewish prophecies and Scripture, is all very ironic since Matthew was a hated Roman Collaborator and Tax Collector, not a popular guy among his own people. It shows just how much Matthew loved his own people, and shows us how to love those folks this Christmas who get under our skin at family gatherings. But Matthew didn’t give up. He told his Gospel in a way that especially invited the Jewish people to believe in Jesus.

Luke, on the other hand, is a Gentile-focused gospel. His primary audience in his euanggelion are non-Jews. His literal “good message” or evangel reminds us why each Gospel writer is called “Matthew the Evangelist,” “John the Evangelist,” and so on. Each wrote to specific groups of people to best try to win these individuals to Christ. Luke’s shift from “they” to “we” about Paul and his entourage in the Book of Acts (Acts 16:10) is significant. It supports the common scholarly contention that Luke was a non-Jewish convert to Christianity. How wonderful it would be that we could find Gospel-bridges to the “nones” with no faith around us, to present the Good News of Jesus in engaging ways with our culture that welcomes and invites the outsiders to come inside.

So the focus of Luke’s evangelistic/euanggelion/Good News was the Gentiles. He quotes Jesus’ parables about the common lot of the Gentiles of his day. They were the ones most likely to be the least, last, lowest, and lost. In Luke, Jesus tells parables that would uniquely speak to those that were either poor in resources or spirit. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, therefore, includes poor despised shepherds and a stable rather than a house and wealthy Magi. By the way, Matthew’s use of the Magi, given his heart for his own people, is more about the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy (Genesis 12:1-3) about a Jewish savior of the world than being pro-gentile.

Nevertheless, each Gospel writer remembered and shared the parts of Jesus’ history to reach a specific audience, or a general one in John’s case. This is one of the reasons why we can legitimately mix Magi and Shepherds in our crèches though they come from two different Biblical sources. Both make the same point, which is belief in Jesus Christ. That should be the point to us as well, and, in addition, there are lessons to be learned in making the Gospel accessible to all people whomever our hearers.

I, for instance, especially like the shepherds and the Gentile-focus of Luke’s gospel. Frankly, most of the Christians that I know today wouldn’t be Christians if it weren’t for the Lucan emphasis on God’s mission to poor Gentiles. That’s the spiritual and genetic background for most of the worldwide church. Jesus’ family tree in Luke that goes back to Adam emphasizes that Christ is the savior of all humanity, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. The question is, “Is He my savior?”

I resonate with the lowly shepherds, a despised bunch without rights or legal standing, who found themselves relegated to the outskirts of town, literally marginalized. With my mixed-blood heritage and a father who didn’t get past the eighth grade, it’s Luke’s message that speaks volumes to me. God’s angelic message of Jesus’ birth doesn’t go to the high and mighty, but to the poor and unaccepted. It’s to the shepherds that the message is given, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…” News for them, news for all – God’s love is not just for some, but for all – spoken to each human heart’s individual need; i.e., “For God so loved the WORLD…that WHOEVER believes in Him shall have eternal life.”

You’re included and so am I. I’ve played a humble shepherd in every Christmas pageant since I was a little boy. I never got promoted to being Joseph or a Wiseman. It was not only type-casting, it was true. I have often felt like a scared second-rate shepherd.

I also resonate with Linus from Peanuts fame who has always needed his security blanket. Maybe you do, too? Don’t we all want security? Haven’t we all sometimes experienced denigration and a lack of acceptance?

I am struck by something on this 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Charlie Brown shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who can explain to me what Christmas is all about?” It’s Linus, carrying his security blanket, who goes to center stage and says, “Lights, please,” before beginning his monologue. Then precisely when Linus quotes appropriately from Luke’s message to the hurting and lost; i.e., the shepherds, something amazing happens. It is exactly when he quotes the angel’s message of “Fear not” to the shepherds that Linus drops his trusty blanket. After that he goes over to Charlie Brown and says, “This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Yep, there’s a message of hope to all of us Charlie Browns who never kick the football, and feel put down just like the shepherds. Jesus’ birth ushers in shalom and a whole bunch of “Fear nots!” that we all need to hear.

Drop whatever security prop you use. Me, too. Linus’ fear subsides and so will ours. This is what I need to hear this Christmas. Listen, “Behold, I bring YOU good news of great joy that will be for ALL the people.”

A Dynamite Church for a Powerless World

As Pentecost approaches on May 24, I am reminded that each Christian is gifted by the Holy Spirit. As much as we like talking about our Trinitarian beliefs, the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift in both theology and practice. It is the Spirit, however, that unites us as a body made of different parts and supernatural abilities (I Corinthians 12). Sometimes our natural abilities and aptitudes are exactly synonymous by the Holy Spirit’s unique gifting of us, but sometimes not. Rather than digressing into the question of how you can tell which, I think that it is better to affirm the Biblical truth that every Christian has unique “gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:4b).” Whether one feels like they have something to offer is irrelevant because we all do!

The Holy Spirit’s presence was let loose by God on an unsuspecting populace in Jerusalem and the world was turned upside down by an explosion of spiritual power. As I read the Pew Research Center’s newest religious poll of America’s faith habits this morning I was dismayed that the “none’s” with no religious affiliation are growing while those professing Christ are declining. I cannot help but wonder if it’s because we resemble the words of 2 Timothy 3:1-5a, “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Sounds quite descriptive of us, doesn’t it? A form of godliness but denying its power.

The power that supplies godliness is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the dunamis, “power” in NT Greek, from whence we get our word “dynamite.” The early church saw miracles and exploded with growth. The Wesleyan Movement saw the same effects and England, America, and most of the rest of the world have witnessed the unleashing of God’s Spirit through our church. Lately, however, we have become too domesticated. Where is the power of the Gospel in our midst? The Holy Spirit is our dynamite!

An interesting article was written several years ago in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.) Starr concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live.

  • It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
  • There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation.

  • And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.
  • “Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t know anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote an editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”
  • Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”
  • Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implications…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

What I meant by saying that we should remember the particulars of the three authors is that other people, from very disparate viewpoints, think there is something that Methodism still has to offer. In reality, the genius of Methodism isn’t a thing, but a Who – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Living Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s great love for all humankind.  The question is whether or not we are full of the Holy Spirit, or full of ourselves? A tree is known by its fruit. Pray for a new Pentecost, and I know it needs to begin in me!

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The Dones and Nones can be Undone

“Baby, It’s cold outside!” is true for the weather, but sometimes it’s an indoor reality, too. There are too many people who are so poor that they cannot heat their homes adequately. I wish that we did as much about that as we worried about the temperature in the sanctuary. Cold churches are worse than a blizzard, and I’m not talking about the thermostat. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the welcoming ministry of the church and its correlation to church growth.

In my mind the number one reason for “Nones,” the people with no religious affiliation who stay away from church, and “Dones,” those who are done with church and don’t plan on coming back, is an unfriendly exclusive church that shortchanges and diminishes JESUS. People are tired of the notion of worship as “plop, pray, and pay” where everything is done “decently and in order.” Methodists used to be known as “Enthusiasts” and “pew-Jumpers” because we got so excited in worship!

Just last night at a marvelous Ash Wednesday service a so-called saint claimed “their” pew and shooed some folks away. This goes against the mantra of the denominational plea of the United Methodist Church that we want to reach, “new people, younger people, and more diverse people.” We are a 92% white denomination that doesn’t demographically reflect our societal milieu. What are we doing to invite people to experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ? I guess we need to let Jesus transform us first!

When I was a District Superintendent I had several churches that probably needed to close. I never closed any, but I not only thought about it, I also suggested to several churches that it might be in their best interest and more so for the community around them if they did. These were churches that had a pathological inbredness about them. I walked the cemetery of one of them and noted that there were four different spellings of the same last name, and they wondered why they weren’t growing. They couldn’t even get along with each other, much less dream God-sized dreams for their community. It crossed my mind that it might have been better for them to post a message on their sign that said, “Closed Until Further Notice – Renovations and Repairs Underway,” so they could get the spiritual malaise of their members corrected. How in the world could you want someone to actually attend an unhealthy church?

Of course, I am reminded that there are no perfect churches, pastors, or people. We wouldn’t need Jesus if that were the case. So we need to make clear to people that if you visit, join, or otherwise associate with our congregation, please don’t expect perfection, inclusion, or genuine love for everybody, because we’re still under construction. We’re not closing our doors, but we do need to promote truth in advertising!

I am pretty sure that the “Nones” and “Dones” have either experienced or heard about that straw-breaking insensitive church member, inadequate preacher, church fight, or whiny plea for money and they either want none of it, or they’re done with it. My sincere hope is that we can still turn the tide before US churches resemble the empty museums they call many “churches” in Europe.

I think the tide will turn if we ratchet up our friendliness factor. We need to be honest, “Yes, we’re human and have problems, but, thanks to Jesus, there’s hope. We may not be perfect, but we’re trying to do better every day, and we need your help. There’s strength in numbers and us plus God can thaw out the coldest deepfreeze.” This sounds fine, but it sounds desperate, doesn’t it, and desperation isn’t attractive either in inviting people to church or to get married.

Maybe a better approach is to focus on the benefits and the advantages of church attendance. After all, doctors say that there is a direct correlation between church attendance and good health. It’s called psycho-immunology, but inviting people to church in such a mercantile fashion strikes me as a little bit overselling and maybe promising more than we can deliver. It sounds like giving away coupon books for discounts at church connected businesses, or, worse, a ticket to heaven when the only heaven we represent is either stale, in turmoil, or dead. If people judged a lot of Christian worship as a foretaste of heaven then I’m afraid that we would be hard-pressed to get any takers.

So, I’m back to the friendliness factor that suggests that how we treat people is key in getting people to darken our doors and come back. The main thing that I would add isn’t a thing as much as it is an experience: the mystery and power of Jesus Christ. Unashamed, let loose, unreserved, genuine, authentic, undeniable, real – that’s the worship that I’m talking about. Our services should be, “Here’s Jesus, the One-and-Only, matchless, loving, forgiving, and empowering God who loves you!” It may be too simple for our sophisticated minds and sense of decorum, but let’s let Jesus be Jesus and watch what happens. It’s like what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said: “I set myself on fire (for God), and people come to watch me burn.”

No self-immolation is intended, but I just think if people saw how great Jesus is to us, then we’ll be people of passion and conviction that exhibit all of Christ’s attributes. Our friendliness factor, therefore, is directly proportional to our faith factor. Who is Jesus to you, to me, to us? If He’s who He says that He is then everything will be as alright in our churches as it can be on this side of eternity.

Listen to Rev. S.M. Lockridge and his description of Jesus. If this doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. If this Jesus is presented to our world in encouraging inviting ways then there won’t be anymore “Nones” and “Dones.” They will be undone by Jesus!