Advent and General Conference: Saying our Piece or Holding our Peace?

Jeremiah’s words (6:13-14) ring true today as I ponder the holiday interactions of families, and the upcoming Special United Methodist General Conference. It’s a family, too. Over and over I hear people promote the unity of the church as if unity without peace is a good thing. Hear Jeremiah’s words and ponder if they sound accurate about the spin doctors in our church and our families: “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” I hear family members tell their relatives to be quiet and avoid conflict, but is that a good thing?

A church bulletin blooper says it well: “The peace-making seminar scheduled for this afternoon has been cancelled due to a conflict.” The second Sunday of Advent usually focuses on peace, but peace is so elusive whether it’s inner peace or peace with others. We need more than a wound dressing. The question that always hits me is when do I make a stand or when do I give in. If we value peace over conflict there are many that would take advantage of that pacifism. Too often people of peace who follow the Prince of Peace remain silent, cling to a non-judgmental attitude, and let extremists take over the conversation. When do we say our piece, or hold our peace?

“Holding your peace” is seldom heard except at weddings: “If anyone can show just cause why these two persons cannot be joined together in holy matrimony, let him or her speak now or forever HOLD THEIR PEACE.”  Oh, Lord do we need people to hold their peace and chill, but sometimes it would be better to speak up. Saying or speaking our piece shouldn’t be left just to the squeaky wheels looking for grease in our acquiescence. Historian Edward Gibbon was right in saying that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to remain silent.

This is the conundrum that we face: when do we expose evil and take on a fight, and when do we let things slide? “Hold your peace” means primarily to hold our tongues. How easy was that for you at Thanksgiving, and how will it go at Christmas? How is it going as you discuss politics or hot-button issues at any time of year? A bit of history might be helpful as we ponder when to be quiet and when to speak up.

We just commemorated the centennial of the end of World War I on November 11. “The War to End All Wars” concluded with an armistice on the 11th day at the 11th hour of the 11th month. The problem was that it was an armistice instead of a surrender. Because the “Great War” was concluded without a surrender it ended up costing Germany everything from their Kaiser and form of government to 100,000 tons of gold in reparations that they didn’t finally pay off until 2010. Even worse, World War I led directly 20 years later to World War II. You can see the impetus to the resulting carnage of the subsequent war with the simple way that Adolf Hitler wore his mustache. He had shaved off the ends while fighting in the trenches of WW I so that he could put on a gas mask without his mustache keeping it from properly sealing. That shortened mustache was a reminder to Hitler of the embarrassing defeat of Germany and he wanted revenge for it. Neville Chamberlain and Great Britain and the US and the rest of the allies didn’t stand up to him and stop World War II because they wanted to avoid another bloodbath like WW I. That’s what happens when you try to appease evil and don’t do anything to stop it.

Think about the United Methodist Commission on a Way Forward and its creation at the 2016 General Conference. By a mere 23 votes the General Conference said it wanted a commission to help the denomination deal with the issue of homosexuality. This vote was not because the delegates weren’t of one mind on the issue. The evidence was clear that every vote in the legislative committees had gone against the progressive left-wingers of the denomination. Then gullible traditionalists in order to be peacemakers were suckered into thinking that we should kick the can down the road and study the issue some more. Moderate pacifists who didn’t know what to think went along with the notion of peace-making and the Way Forward Commission was birthed. If we had gone ahead and voted on all the homosexuality petitions, and I wish that we had, our current language would have been overwhelmingly affirmed. We wouldn’t have all the propaganda from the liberal left pushing the One Church Plan and the obfuscation of half-truths and untruths flooding the UM news outlets or our email boxes.

The UMC has voted down changing its position that all persons are persons of sacred worth, and the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching since 1972 and the margins for keeping our current language have grown every time. The One Church Plan is an attempt that we’ve seen before in other local option permutations and it has been defeated soundly over and over again. But, here we go again, “once more into the breach,” to deal with the same thing. Here’s the point, a lot of us are tired of armistices. There is no unity or so-called peace when dealing with this or a lot of hot button issues. There never will be. Delegates’ minds have been made up, though a few Quislings will waffle. So, I’m going to keep speaking my piece on this subject. The time to be silent is past. If you want to know how I find out where people stand on the issue, I tell them how I personally feel and then ask then how they feel. If they hesitate in the least I already know where they stand.

Please understand that I genuinely love everyone, and find all of sacred worth. I also recognize, however, that all of us have sinned and need Jesus’ redemption. The One Church Plan leaves us with no boundaries nor foul lines, except our own consciences in sexuality matters, and promotes a fake peace and a sham unity over the express will of God and every General Conference that’s met heretofore.

I want peace, but a real one. I will continue to love my progressive brothers and sisters even if the fact of the matter is that at my 6 General Conferences it was the progressives that did all the protesting, spitting, breaking chalices and patens, and disrupting the proceedings. I have never ever seen a conservative protest hold General Conference or any general church meeting hostage.

All of us have family members and others who are disrupters. Do we let them keep doing it and not say anything? The Silent Majority needs to speak up before our culture goes down the tubes. God bless us all as we discern when to speak our piece or hold our peace.

Armistisce Photo

Advent and Tommy Luck

Advent is the season the Church lives in all year! To live in the light of Christ’s coming is to be fully aware that He has come and will come again. It is a belief in the First and Second Coming of Jesus that gives me hope and strength in this bewildering in-between time. We don’t like to wait. We make fun of people who aren’t very fast by saying that they are “Slower than Christmas.” Well, right now that’s quick and before we know it, Christmas will be upon us, barreling down on us. How are we to handle the hustle and bustle?

Are you an elevator button pusher? Do you try to make the elevator go faster by pushing the “close door” button over and over again? It doesn’t really help. Thanks to the American Disabilities Act of 1990 the “close door” button is really just a placebo, a fake designed to make us feel better. All elevators are programmed so that no matter how many times you push the button, there’s enough time for persons with wheelchairs or other ambulatory aids to get on and off without fear of the doors closing on them.

Maybe we need to stop doing the things that don’t really help us deal with stress and impatience. It would be better for us during this Advent season and year-round to chill out and relax. This should be a time of peace, not panic. Do you know anyone named “Irene?” Irene is a name that isn’t very much in fashion these days, but it is letter for letter in English the Greek word for “peace.” We don’t need to sing “Good Night, Irene.” Instead we need to welcome Christ’s peace that passes all understanding. The basis for patience is trusting in God’s peace.

Ambrose Bierce wasn’t keen on patience, and I bet that he was a “close door” elevator pusher. He said, “Patience is a noun, a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” How wrong. Patience only becomes a form of despair if we forget Jesus and the peace and confidence that He brings. One of my favorite short stories is the one by Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” Harte tells of a Wild West mining town that is full of gruff dirty miners in deplorable conditions and only one woman, “Cherokee Sal.” Cherokee Sal is pregnant and, sadly, during childbirth, dies. The miners name the baby boy, “Tommy Luck,” hoping for good luck from his birth.

They didn’t exactly know how to take care of a baby, but they work it out. Little by little, baby steps and giant leaps, the hamlet of Roaring Camp changes. For Tommy’s sake, the miners start bathing. They clean up their ramshackle houses. They built a church and got a preacher to come. They even invited decent God-fearing women to come and they did. The luck of Roaring Camp changed because Tommy Luck came into their midst. Jesus’ presence in coming as a child changed this roaring world for the better, and when Jesus comes again, all things will be made right – no more cancer, dementia, poverty, injustice, racism – nothing bad.

So to inspire our patience, we need to focus on Jesus. To have a better Advent we need to trust in the greatness of God. If we will do that, the whole world will notice that there’s something different and better about us. How great is your God? The answer to that one question will determine the peacefulness of our lives. A man said to his friend, “When my wife and I were on our honeymoon we decided I would make all of the big decisions and she would make all the small ones.” The friend asked, “How’s that working for you?” His buddy replied, “Fine, I guess. We’ve been married for 30 years, had 3 kids, bought and sold 3 houses, and purchased at least 15 cars; and I’m still waiting to make a big decision.” I hope God makes all of our decisions, big and small! How great is our God?

Think about it through the context of this story about a man who was late in getting a package mailed for Christmas delivery. The post office employee told him that for $47.10 it would get to its destination just in time. The man said the price was fine, and added, “It’s for my Dad. His birthday is Christmas Day, and I’ve got to get his present to him.” The customer directly behind the man who thought the cost was exorbitant said, “I’m sure glad that I don’t know anybody born on Christmas Day!” Another customer, who was evidently a Christian, said, “I’m sure glad that I do!” Are we glad we know Jesus? So are we ready for His birthday? We don’t want to forget the Guest of Honor at His own birthday party?

Jesus is coming, ready or not. There are 39 books in the Old Testament in 4 groupings: 5 books of Law; 12 of History; 6 of poetry; and 16 books of prophecy – and ALL 4 groups speak of Jesus’ second coming. We would all say that “new birth” is a major theme of the New Testament, but it’s only mentioned 9 times. “Baptism” is another key NT theme, but it’s only mentioned 20 times. “Repentance” is a NT key, and it’s mentioned 70 times. Guess what? The Second Coming of Christ is mentioned an astounding 380 times in the NT, one out of every 25 verses. Why is it so important? Why does it give us peace? It helps us because it lets us know that the future belongs to God. Wait for Jesus’ coming patiently and with confidence. Everything is going to be better than alright!

220px-Second_Coming_of_Christ_window

Christmas Weddings and Wakes

Christmas memories are forever, good ones and not-so-good. My mother’s parents’ wedding anniversary was December 25. Since they lived with us, we were the hub where everyone gathered on Christmas Day. We laughed, exhibited our favorite gifts to one another, shot fireworks, and ate turkey, dressing, ambrosia and caramel cake. It was hilarious and holy all in one. I can hear Papa’s laugh and Grandmother’s orders. I can see Mother’s every-year-a-different-theme of decorations adorning the seventeen-stepped hall bannister. I can also see heavy-set Uncle Lee waddling up those same stairs to see the children play, the only adult brave or caring enough to dare invade our space.

He was also the one who gave us the strangest, yet most precious gifts. Uncle Lee would wrap a signed $2 bill around a pig’s ear, foot, or some other part then bundle it up in meat wrapping paper and grace each child with semi-macabre joy. I still have those treasures including a silver dollar with his “L.J.” initials in red fingernail polish across the coin’s face. The memories were mostly happy and they should have been. We found our cedar trees and cut them down. We were like explorers looking for treasure every year as we went Christmas tree hunting. Christmas was magical.

Christmas elicited the most marvelous experiences and memories. For instance, my call to ministry was shaped by Christmas Communion by candlelight at Trinity Episcopal. I can sense the awe and the love of God incarnate in Jesus right this minute. The Lord’s Supper never tasted so real. God marked me at Christmas. To this day, Christmas Eve services without communion just aren’t enough.

Christmas brought out the best in most people. I sold fireworks for my Uncle Homer every day of the holidays, a continuation of his son Jackie’s business. I nearly froze to death in that tiny little stand. I was warmed with very little heat thanks to all the gunpowder at hand. It was a happy joy to help a myriad collection of people celebrate the holidays. That was a gift in itself.

Christmas always meant love was in the air, too. It was not only my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, but my Mother and Father got married on December 23. In doing some family research this seems to be an automatic thing. Multiple generations have December weddings. Cindy and I got married on December 20, 41 years ago this year. We honestly didn’t think about any familial connection. I thought we were just too enamored with one another to wait until June.

But Christmas was a sad time, too. Uncle Lee died suddenly on December 23, 1974. Grandmother died sixteen days before our wedding on December 4, 1975. Uncle J.C. died on December 8, 2000. Weddings and wakes have been our family’s December experience for generations. Christmas has been the best of times and the worst of times. That sounds a lot like the first Christmas with Caesar Augustus and the Pax Romana, the enforced peace of Rome cobbled with a taxation to fund it. Good times and bad ones. That’s life, isn’t it?

And Jesus entered it, just like He always does. Jesus comes when we’re having a blast and making good memories, and He’s with us when times are tough and hard. Some of the chairs will be empty around the Christmas table again this year. Some of them will be filled by new mini-me’s of the latest iterations of our collective progeny. That probably won’t lessen the pain, but it certainly helps.

That’s our story, your story, humanity’s story. Maybe my family has been shaped by Christmas more than most as we ride the roller coaster of weddings and wakes, but, if anything, it has made us real. We’re such a Faulknerian Southern family. We have more saints and sinners than a story-teller like me can use, but authenticity is never a problem for us. Even better this Advent and Christmas is the Good News that Jesus is more real than us. He is the authentic, fully Human, fully Divine Savior. Whoever we are, whatever we’re going through, as my late brother Carlee always repeated, “Best of all, God is with us.” Emmanuel has come! He came to deliver us from everything that needs to be left behind. He came to make all things, including memories, new. Hallelujah!

Missing Tomato Aspic

There’s a funeral tomorrow and grief for another family that will have an empty seat at this year’s Thanksgiving table. This is everyone’s reality: How do you give thanks when someone you dearly loved is missing? This year our unexpected death was Aunt Claire. There were other deaths with Aunt Alva and first cousin Virginia, but Claire’s was a total shock. As much as I disliked the tomato aspic that she dutifully brought to Thanksgiving and Christmas, this year I will sorely miss it because I’ll miss her. One way to handle Thanksgiving when you feel the losses is to add up the blessings that those no longer with us gave us while they were here.

This reminds me of a very poignant Thanksgiving that our family observed 14 years ago. We were at Cindy’s mother’s house and we feasted and reminisced about former days. We deeply missed Mr. Godwin or “Gandaddy,” as the children called him. My Dad’s sudden death just weeks before his was heavily on my mind, too. As I was walking around in the yard before we left I noticed the stump of the old oak tree that had stood for centuries beside the house. After Hugo ripped up another of the ancient giants in the yard and the last ice storm decimated the rest, it seemed a good idea to cut down this hazard that was located so precariously close to the house. All that had been left for several years was a huge stump.

I’m sure the transformation took place gradually, but that Saturday it was undeniably apparent and immediate. The old stump that had once looked weather beaten and forlorn was alive again. It was sprouting new shoots, live branches of hope into the gray sky. They were at least four feet tall and climbing. The serendipity of the find gave me pause to think about life and its changes. We go through lifeless seasons of scarring and barrenness, and then Jesus’ power causes us to sprout again. Even when it seems like life is over, Jesus can resurrect us. There is no damage that Jesus can’t undo!

Another serendipitous occasion over that Thanksgiving holiday was the arrival at my mother-in-law’s of a cute little beagle. Mrs. Godwin had enjoyed her two cats, but she had sorely missed the Boykin spaniel that she and Mr. Godwin mutually adored. Bud was the dog that they loved so much. Bud enjoyed riding in the pickup with Mr. Godwin and lying down at Mrs. Godwin’s feet. He was so old he started to edge closer and closer to death’s door, but, because he was so much a reminder of Mr. Godwin’s life, Mrs. Godwin spared no expense in vet bills to try and keep Bud going, especially after Mr. Godwin’s untimely death. However, one day Bud just disappeared, either he was stolen or instinctually wandered off in order to die away from his “Mother,” as if to spare Mrs. Godwin yet another grief.

Other dogs had come and gone before Bud: Brio, and Britt, to name a couple. You probably noticed that all their names started with the letter “B.” So one’s imagination wouldn’t have to work overtime to figure out what new name this foundling beagle was granted: Barney. Mrs. Godwin, living by herself, had said repeatedly that she wanted another dog, but she didn’t have the desire or physical stamina to train another one for the house. Well, God does work in mysterious ways. Barney just happened to be house-broken already, had quite a menacing bark for a dog with his diminutive size so he could protect Mrs. Godwin, and he quickly learned to use the “dog door” that Mr. Godwin installed some time before his death. Once again, when we least expected it, just like the old tree stump’s new shoots, new life enters our pain and gives us hope.

Advent season can be a similar experience for us frail time-bound human creatures. One recent year our family didn’t even put up a Christmas tree because we were too overwhelmed by personal concerns in the aftermath of Mrs. Godwin’s sudden death and Narcie’s first brain tumor surgery. Every year since, determined to open our hearts to Jesus’ power to bring new life, we have put up our decorations weeks earlier than usual.

Instead of retreating into worry, which is more my problem and not Cindy’s, Advent dares us to move toward God’s in-breaking kingdom, whether it comes in the form of new shoots out of a seemingly dead stump, a new puppy, a new baby like Josh and Karen’s due in February, or the ultimate gift of new life that comes in the Christ Child grown up to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. May this Advent bring you inspired hope. Yes, we will miss Aunt Claire, Aunt Alva, Cousin Virginia, and the rest of our loved ones who have died this year, but we will look for the signs of hope that they all taught us to see!

tomato aspic

 

Offering the Gospel at Christmas

Have you ever wondered about the inaccuracy of our coffee-table Nativity Scenes? Mixing Magi and shepherds in a stable as opposed to a house is a convenient mixing of the two Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth but just aren’t what the Bible text says. I am leading a 3-week study of the Birth Narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Anyone who has read them know there are huge differences between them.

Matthew has Jesus’ genealogy go back to Abraham, includes 4 very interesting non-Jewish women of questionable initiative and pursuits, has a Joseph-perspective unlike the Mary-centric view of Luke that focuses big-time on Jesus’ birth being the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and loves designating the Christ-child as the “Son of David” emphasizing that he is a true king in the Davidic line (2 Samuel 7:16).

Matthew further makes the point that Jesus is the culmination of the promise to Abram in Genesis 12:3 that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” by including the Magi/Wise Men, the foreign astronomers who followed a star and found Jesus after a confab with wicked King Herod. Unlike Luke, in Matthew there are no shepherds, no Song of Mary, no manger, no heavenly host singing, no lack of room in the inn, and Luke’s genealogy goes back to Adam, not Abraham.

All this is to say that each Gospel writer has his own perspective and audience because each writer wants a certain group to have a better chance to receive and accept the good news of Jesus Christ. The truth doesn’t change from audience to audience, but what preacher doesn’t want to make their message more attractive by cherry-picking certain recollections that speak more clearly to their primary listeners?

So Matthew differs from Luke. “Son of David” occurs 11 times in Matthew, 4 times in Luke and Mark, and not at all in John. That’s a clue! Matthew wants his Jewish/Gentile church to have an apologetic, an argument to use in their mixed religion and no-religion community that Jesus is the Jewish Savior and the Gentile Savior rolled into One! Sounds like something we need to do as the “None’s” who have no religious affiliation or affinity become more and more numerous.

As much as Easter is the hinge upon which our faith stands or falls, it is Christmas that is the primary season for us to witness to the people in our society who don’t know Jesus. After I attempted last night to cover all the ways that Matthew was trying to make the case for Jesus, I asked the question, “What do we use today to prove to people who Jesus is? Do we use Scripture, personal actions like good deeds, corporate goodness in Christian institutions, personal experience, the miraculous, etc.?” The question still looms, “How do we offer Christ to the world in a way that is both inviting and convincing?”

Do the images, messages, and tunes of Christmas during Advent and Christmas seasons mostly benefit those already in the know, or do they convey the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord in effective ways to nominal Christians, newcomers to the faith, or strangers to belief. I dare say it, I think that we’ve been “preaching to the choir,” and satisfying our own need to have our beliefs reinforced. Before our message is completely drowned out by Santa Claus and “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas,” we must reinterpret the Gospel in a fresh yet timeless manner that compels people to at least consider that Jesus is who Jesus and the Scriptures say He is!

It is my experience that music and sentiment are the best ways to reach people during this season. Longest Night or Solstice Services help people through a season without a loved one. Traditional Christmas carols done in fresh ways via the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Pentatonix are stirring and a valid entrée into people’s need for an emotional, even spiritual, depth to the season. Bottom line, as syrupy and manipulative as it may sound and seem, I think we need to meet people exactly where they are and touch them with the wonder of the season in emotional ways.

I suppose I am admitting that the facts of Christianity aren’t reaching people. They answer questions that people aren’t asking anymore. Therefore, we need to touch the most pressing need and that is on an emotional level. Of course, the facts provide emotional buttressing and support feelings of financial stability and cognitive peace. However, it is sentiment that is measured nowadays when the Fed gauges money policies of contraction or loosening of interest rates. They call it “Consumer Sentiment,” or the “Consumer Confidence Index,” and it largely determines the Fed’s actions.  I suggest that we do the same in our apologetic, our attempts to prove who Jesus is and what only He can do for someone’s life.

What are the arguments, proofs, compelling reasons, apologetics, or rationales that you are using to witness for Jesus? Matthew used one perspective on Jesus’ life to reach his listeners. Mark used his. Luke had his own take for the benefit of his audience, and John another. We better be using or doing something or the culture is going to keep marginalizing the religious aspect of the season and totally miss Jesus. Not a good thing – a terrible thing especially in light of the Good News that everyone so desperately needs.

Holiday Grace

Christmas panic is already here! I am grateful for all those who give of themselves in worship leadership: music directors, clergy, worship committees, altar guilds, choir members, musicians, ushers, acolytes, crucifers, band members, and thank God for good sound technicians. With worship it literally takes a village and that’s the point. True worship focuses on God as the audience, the congregants as the actors, and everyone connected to worship leadership as the stage hands that facilitate the worshiping gifts of the congregation toward a Holy God. Too many worship experiences have devolved into a feast for the parishioners, and a spectacle for spectators. The use of religious language and music has too often become a “production” for show-and-tell entertainers for consumeristic congregants whose primary interest is what’s-in-it-for-me.

Why is this on my mind right now? Well, it’s not Thanksgiving yet and already Music and Worship people have that “look” on their faces about Christmas. It’s a cross between glee, panic, and frustration because in so many ways music does carry the season. I sympathize with all the people who are doing their very best to make sure the holidays are bright and worshipful for everyone. My gratitude for all of the stagehands that help us offer God our best worship should go without saying, but I must say it. I must say it now before Advent and Christmas seasons arrive because the aftermath leaves these selfless people with too little energy to even embrace a hearty “Thanks!”

So I say, “Thank you,” ahead of time. It is Thanksgiving season after all! There’s a great story of the depth of meaning that comes from offering the Christ Child as a gift every Christmas to a world that so desperately needs Him. It is a message of how poignant and important our yearly offering is:

It was Sunday, Christmas. Our family had spent the holidays in San Francisco with my husband’s parents. But in order for us to be back at work on Monday, we found ourselves driving 400 miles back home to Los Angeles on Christmas Day.

We stopped for lunch in King City. The restaurant was nearly empty. We were the only family and ours were the only children. I heard Erik, my one year old, squeal with glee: “Hithere.” (Two words he thought were one.) “Hithere.” He pounded his fat baby hands – whack, whack – on the metal high chair tray. His face was alive with excitement, eyes wide, gums bared in a toothless grin. He wriggled and chirped, and giggled, and then I saw the source of his merriment…and my eyes could not take it all in at once.

A tattered rag of a coat – obviously bought by someone else, eons ago – dirty, greasy, and worn…baggy pants – spindly body – toes that poked out of would-be shoes…a shirt that had ring-around-the-collar all over and  a face like none other…gums as bare as Erik’s.

“Hi there baby; hi there, big boy. I see ya, buster.” My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between “What do we do?” and “Poor devil.” Our meal came, and the cacophony continued. Now the old bum was shouting from across the room: “Do ya know patty cake? Atta boy…Do ya know peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek-a-boo!”

Erik continued to laugh and answer, “Hithere.” Every call was echoed. Nobody thought it was cute. The guy was a drunk and a disturbance. I was embarrassed. My husband, Dennis, was humiliated. Even our six-year-old said, “Why is that old man talking so loud?” Dennis went to pay the check, imploring me to get Erik and meet him in the parking lot. “Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik.” I bolted for the door.

It soon was obvious that both the Lord and Erik had other plans. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, walking to side-step him – and any air he might be breathing. As I did so, Erik, all the while with his eyes riveted to his new best friend, leaned far over my arm, reaching with both arms to a baby’s “pick me up” position. In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight I came eye-to-eye with the old man. Erik was lunging for him, arms spread wide.

The bum’s eyes both asked and implored, “Would you let me hold your baby?” There was no need for me to answer since Erik propelled himself from my arms to the man’s. Suddenly a very old man and a very young baby consummated their love relationship. Erik laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder. The man’s eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, and pain, and hard labor – gently, so gently, cradled my baby’s bottom and stroked his back.

I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm commanding voice, “You take care of this baby.” Somehow I managed, “I will,” from a throat that contained a stone.

He pried Erik from his chest – unwillingly, longingly – as though he was in pain. I held my arms open to receive my baby and again the gentleman addressed me. “God bless you, ma’am. You’ve given me my Christmas gift.”

I said nothing more than a muttered thanks. With Erik back in my arms, I ran for the car. Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly and why I was saying, “My God, my God, forgive me.”

God bless every worship leader this coming holiday season. Every year you graciously give “your baby” – “The Baby” to a world that needs to hear the Incarnation’s message afresh. Thanks to you we each receive our Christmas gift. Bless you and thanks for all that you do!

Baby Picture

Church Pecking Order Prevents Jesus’ Birth

Would we recognize Jesus? Years ago I wrote a dramatic monologue about Jesus’ birth in a small South Carolina town. I used actual places in the community as the setting. I used the Starlite Motel and its back garage as the stable; the shepherds were pulp wood workers making their way to the forest; the Magi were NASA scientists who had been tracking the unusual astronomical phenomenon to this town’s exact location. Smack dab in the middle, halfway between the beginning of US 1 in Florida and the end of US 1 in Maine, is Cheraw, SC and I was the night manager at the Starlite. It also helped that the real-life Oasis pub was conveniently located a block or so from the motel and had its share of potential witnesses to the event – all of whom were on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. The couple that needed a place to stay was more like the pulpwooders and the stragglers from the Oasis than the wise folks from NASA.

I thought the parallels were pretty convincing, and I certainly looked the part, unshaven, unkempt, and a lot less than spiffy. The folks at church who didn’t recognize me looked askance! I was a poor third-shift part-time worker who just happened to be an eyewitness to Jesus’ coming, but I didn’t look so good. I looked out of place!

Those who recognize Jesus will need to see him in every face they see. They will honor everyone whether they look the part or not. Therefore, I am firmly convinced that our readiness and ability to recognize Jesus’ coming is in how well we see him in those around us. Who lives up to our standards, and fits in with our Christmas plans, and makes it on our holiday gift list?

Think about church life and Christians and the notion of who’s in and who’s out in the way we do things and interact with society. Somehow our pets along the way have preached a sermon to me about this very subject. Cindy and I aren’t animal lovers per se. We have had pets through the years for the children’s sake more than ours. Names like Taffy, Shoelace, Snuggles, Brio, and, of course, Pug come to mind. When we lived in the country around Lydia, SC we would take these walks down along the swamp and back up the railroad grade with our vigilant squirrel chasers clearing the path. Those days were magical in many ways. And Narcie still has Pug, a Cheraw Christmas gift who dearly loves her.

Occasionally strange dogs which really weren’t strange would come by our fenced in backyards. They belonged to unknown somebodies. At first there would always be a terrible racket. Our dog(s) would be inside the fence barking up a storm at the outside dog. I figured the best thing to do would be to let the dog into the gate so the owner could come by and pick it up. If it went down by the railroad or up the road or street who knows what might happen.

When the dogs were in the backyard together the barking always stopped. They sniffed each other out, checking one another, and then proceeded to ignore each other altogether. In the words of my late father-in-law, “They were establishing the pecking order.” That’s what dogs and people do. It’s not a best case scenario, but the status quo rules at least until meal time when the growling over first place at the dinner table kicks in.

Churches are notorious for this same kind of behavior. The ones on the outside of the church walls never bark, but the ones inside bark like crazy at those who aren’t insiders like them. When they do happen to come inside they’re ignored until a pecking order has been established with them on the bottom. Wouldn’t it be nice if we would stop acting like dogs and offer one another more than a sniff and a handshake at church? Wouldn’t it be nice if we, like Jesus, turned the pecking order on its head and saw everyone as better than ourselves – especially the poor?

He came to “poor orn’ry creatures like you and like I, says the old Appalachian folk song. There’s no pecking order at the manger! Let’s quit acting like dogs before the church really goes to the dogs!

Food Costs at Advent: Cheap and Costly

Advent Season is a time of preparation for Christ’s coming into the world. We celebrate his first advent and eagerly anticipate his Second Coming. Advent is considered a penitential time of somber expectation of Christ’s judgment. We have turned it into a Christmas Party with all the necessary carols and trimmings, and have forgotten the Judgment. Our materialism, overspending, and overdoing stresses us to the maximum and we neglect God’s priorities. This is a season to get our hearts and lives straight, our priorities in order.

A woman bought a parrot to keep her company. She took him home, but returned the bird to the store the next day. “This bird doesn’t talk,” she told the owner. “Does he have a mirror in his cage?” asked the pet store owner. “Parrots love mirrors. They see themselves in the mirror and start up a conversation.” The woman bought a mirror and left. The next day, she returned to the store. The bird still wasn’t talking. “How about a ladder? Parrots love walking up and down a ladder. A happy parrot is more likely to talk.” The woman bought a ladder and left. Sure enough, she was back the next day; the bird still wasn’t talking. “Does your parrot have a swing? If not, that’s the problem. He’ll relax and talk up a storm.” The woman reluctantly bought a swing and left. When she walked into the store the next day, her countenance had changed. “The parrot died,” she said. The pet store owner was shocked. “I’m so sorry. Tell me, did he ever say a word?” he asked. “Yes, right before he died,” the woman replied. “He said, ‘Don’t they sell any food at that pet store?’”

The Holiday season can cause us to spend all of our time and energy on the frills and thrills of Christmas and miss the true nourishment that we need. However, it’s Advent season that helps us prepare for Christ in the most appropriate and profound ways. Isaiah 9:6-7 reminds us that God’s best gift of grace isn’t something you can buy online or at a mall. Grace comes through a child born in a stall: “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”

What’s the cost of this gift? Hear God’s voice in Isaiah 55:1-3a: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.”

Come to Jesus the Bread of Life, born in Bethlehem which aptly means in Hebrew, “House of Bread.” Why get so caught up in the candy canes and peripheral fluff of the season when our best sustenance can come only from the Source: God. Put away your credit cards and eat for free from the One who said, “This is my body, my blood; take eat and drink…” The parrot said: “Don’t they sell any food at that pet store?” Jesus says to those of us overwhelmed by life: “I am the bread from heaven, come, eat and be satisfied.”

This everlasting food isn’t just for our personal needs in a self-service buffet “I want what I want” kind of way. God has made it clear that what we do for others, especially the least, lowest, and the lost, we have done for God. Be generous this season with those in need and remember the words of Hebrews 13:1-3: “Love and treat everyone like family. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

Listen to the words of Joan Osborne’s “What if God was One of Us?” sung by the “Glee” cast and notice the Bread of heaven. By the way, Osborne’s intro words on her original are very appropriate for Advent, too – check out the first 15 seconds on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USR3bX_PtU4:

“one of these nights at about twelve o’clock
this whole earth’s gonna reel and rock…
things thay’ll tremble and cry for pain
for the Lord’s gonna come in his heavenly airplane.”

Advent: Jesus Caught Breaking and Entering

United Methodist Bishop, William Boyd Grove, former pastor of Bethel Park UMC just outside of Pittsburgh suggested that there are certain words that deserve to interrupt all other words and conversation. Words like “The house is on fire!” or “The war is over!” or “Your hostage brother has been released!” These are, in his provocative words, “startling, interrupting proclamations that change everything. If the house is on fire, you run! If the war is over, you dance! If your hostage brother is released, you leave everything and go to meet him!” During Advent we prepare ourselves for another set of words that change everything: “Jesus Christ has come and is coming back!”

God sometimes whispers and oftentimes shouts these words to us in every candle and carol, every card and crèche. For me I hear them most often in the voices of the weary and poor, but I must admit that sometimes I am not ready to hear these words that cause all others to cease. I am just too busy or overwhelmed by life. That is why Advent season precedes Christmas, to help us all get prepared, to enable us to hear God’s voice of hope. This wonder of Advent, as poet Elizabeth Jennings puts it, is this: “… It is a mystery/How God took time/ and entered history.” It is a grand mystery that gives us hope, hope in a God that loves us so much that He came to be one of us.

Oh, how we need hope. With loved ones absent from the Thanksgiving table last week and the terrible truth that their absences won’t be less gaping in four short weeks, but actually worse, and with worries on the battlefronts of the world: recession, unemployment, domestic violence, terror, poverty, debt, and ill health, we know all too well the need for a friendly God, a benevolent Jesus, a comforting Holy Spirit.

You may be where a lot of people are right now after learning the truth that Thanksgiving celebrations are terribly efficient ways for families to spread germs and vermin across the miles.  Who knows who passed the bug around first, but I know that there are plenty of people who caught something over the past weekend. “What a horrible time to be sick!” is what many have been thinking. But truthfully there couldn’t be a better time. Nothing quite like illness makes us pause and reflect.

Advent season isn’t an illness, but it can inoculate us with just the right soul-saving amount of reflection that may help us survive the holidays. Maybe if we paused before we said things we wouldn’t have such a tough time having worshipful Advent seasons. One guy went up to a woman that he though he recognized and said, “You look like Helen Black.” Her response, “I don’t look so good in brown either!” Another miscommunication occurred as I heard about one church that invited a guest preacher at the beginning of Advent. In the bulletin was this announcement: “The church is glad to have with us today as our guest minister the Reverend Shirley Green who has Mr. Green with her. After the service we request that all remain in the sanctuary for the Hanging of the Greens.”

Many churches begin Advent season with a “Hanging of the Greens” service. Others are hard at work on special music or projects. Chrismon trees and poinsettias will grace sanctuaries all over Christendom, but more important than the preparation of our homes and houses of worship will be the preparation of our hearts. Therefore, here’s another but more appropriate Advent bulletin blooper: “The Word made flesh and swelling among us.” May the Word swell and dwell in your life this Advent season! Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!

Gaudete Sunday!!!

This coming third Sunday in Advent is known for its unusual pink candle and is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” is a word from which we derive our word, “gaudy.” While I think of something that’s gaudy as tacky, Gaudete Sunday reminds me of something truly profound – the deeper meaning of joy, hence the pink candle. The day takes its name from the Latin for “Rejoice” which is the first word of Gaudete Sunday’s introit in Latin: “Gaudete in Domino semper…” It comes from Philippians 4:4-6: “Rejoice in the Lord always…” and it comes at a perfect time for me. With two weeks to go before Christmas it is easy for me to panic about gift-giving and go overboard in trying to make sure that everything this Christmas is perfect and everyone’s measure of joy exceeds expectations.

But joy isn’t an extrinsic purchase! It’s the difference between joy and happiness. I can’t even explain it with a worthy analogy, but I think I know the difference. The closest I can come in explaining what I mean is that being happy represents a second-rate emotion dependent on external circumstances while joy is a first-rate intrinsic sense of extreme well-being regardless of surroundings. As someone put it, “Joy is not the absence of suffering; it is the presence of God.” Isn’t this the real meaning of our celebrations? We wait for the Lord’s advent with joyous expectation by commemorating the first and anticipating the second! So, whether well fed or hungry, employed or unemployed, laid aside or ranked with whomever – joy is a gift of God independent of pomp and circumstance.

This will be a tough year for some to try to manufacture happiness. Some may be like me who have faked our way through the tough financial times of the last few years. I have kept up a good appearance, determined that Christmas would not suffer. I have been one of those who has been, in the vernacular, “been robbing Peter to pay Paul,” to live as if the Great Recession didn’t occur. I’m ashamed to admit that in the last few years I hit my pension plan, insurance cash values, and maxed out credit cards to create a façade of normalcy in the midst of stress and less. Now the truth hurts and there is no safety net left. It will be a lean Christmas in things, but not in joy or love.

Cindy and I went to a famous Scottish restaurant to celebrate our 37th wedding anniversary the other night and purchased our celebratory gift while we were there. The name of the restaurant is “McAlister’s” headquartered in Oxford, Mississippi, and famous for their sweet tea and sandwiches all around the South. Frankly, even this sandwich shop is a little too pricey for our budget right now, but we splurged. We spent $20 or less sharing sandwiches and the price included a $4.95 gift to hang on the Christmas tree. It’s a reminder of this year – a year without much fanfare, but large on joy. We purchased a McAlister’s ornament for our tree – a miniature plastic cup with “McAlister’s Deli” emblazoned on the side with fake ice and lemon in what I suppose is fake tea. Hey, it might be the real stuff.

I am reminded that the real stuff of Advent and Christmas is joy – not the absence of gifts, and not even the absence of any sign that Narcie’s brain tumor has grown. Joy is sensing the intimate presence of God, the underlying awareness that comes from worshipping a loving grace-filled God – the incarnate Word become flesh in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. Joy is the imperceptible inner glow that rises from the core of faith and gives hope and light to every cell of our being. This joy is often seen most clearly from a vantage point not of this world.

Seeing the big picture reminds me of traipsing off to Atlanta with my two older brothers as a small child. I have a few memories of the experience, one of which was that I had more money than the two of them put together. I think that’s how I got invited! Older brother Carlee rented a motel room for two as he and Ralph pushed me down into the floorboard of the car so the manager wouldn’t notice. I vividly recall middle brother Ralph throwing me into the pool to teach me how to sink or swim. Even as I recall all of the assorted tidbits of the trip, a sly smile creeps to my face. Now that’s joy. When all around you is crud or despair, think about the bigger picture – the memories and persons that make your heart grow strangely warm. If I picture Enoch, Evy, and Kaela who are our precious grandchildren, wow, does my heart sing!

It takes a larger view of life. One of the best things that I remember about Carlee, Ralph, and I going to Atlanta was going to Grant Zoo. The animals were cool, but what most impressed me was the Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta painted in 1892 by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine and August Lohr. Cycloramas literally go full circle as they tell a story, and they use diorama effects around the painting’s base to give it a more three-dimensional feel, inviting viewers into the scene and “experience” the event depicted. Most cycloramas were created in the late 19th century before the advent of motion pictures which were the cause of their demise. But, however dated, the Atlanta Cyclorama was instrumental in forming my love of history, and it made a little boy see that “playing army” with plastic soldiers was a horrible farce when faced with the brutality of war set before my very eyes in the life-like scenes of the cyclorama.

It was eye-opening and cycloramas have a message for me this on this coming Gaudete Sunday. I read that cyclorama artists stood on platforms in the middle of the actual terrain of their histroic scenes while they conceived their paintings. This gave them a bird’s-eye view so they could be as accurate as possible in their work.

This speaks volumes to me. To reclaim Advent joy as the one of the most sublime gifts of Christ I have to climb out of the mire and take a higher and wider view of life. It isn’t pie-in-the-sky or unrealistic. It isn’t purchased at a mall and put on a charge card. Joy is that warm smile that is sheer gift. It rises in the throat, warms the heart, and though unexplainable it is as tangible as a tear. You can’t make it, purchase it, or fake it. It’s a gift from the God who says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy, eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. (Isaiah 55:1-3)” That’s music to my ears and brings real joy to my heart!