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!

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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!

Repentance in the District Office!

Today I begin to stack my office with pottery for the UM Center employees. Tonight I will give away nearly a hundred little angel ornaments to the active and retired clergy of the Columbia District. They look a little funky. Hey, I tried making elaborate angels with tipped multilayered wings but the angles on those angels (pun intended) about ruined my Advent hope. Those wings were impossible! Instead I opted for simple angels which my children say look more like plump bald ghosts or mini-me’s that they have dubbed “Timanents” because I more than vaguely resemble the aforementioned description. Ha!

I wanted to start over, recycle the clay, REPENT! Too late, today’s the day and tonight’s the night. I got rushed with the gifts for the UM Center, Cabinet, and family, too. I panicked enough that I pressed Caleb and Josh into service. They helped me glaze and let’s just say that we ended up with some color combinations that stretch the notion of a pleasing color spectrum. Sunday afternoon, out of sheer disgust, I hosed off the unfired glaze from the few remaining pieces so they can dry and I get a do-over before our family Christmas gathering on the 22nd. On top of all this my impatience got exacerbated when one of my kiln’s thermocouples failed. I have rebuilt that kiln for nearly 2 decades but I have never had to replace a thermocouple. Shudder!

Anyway, the parts have come in and I now have to get up my nerve to deal with ELECTRICITY. Please pray for the gift recipients of this “Charlie Brown Christmas.” I repent, I repent, and I repent some more. I should have paced myself enough to enjoy the artistic process, used careful planning and execution to get the glazes right, and factored in the possibility of equipment failure. But, no…… and I’m caught. Today it begins, ready or not! Repentance without reformation is the definition of stupidity. Saying “I’m sorry,” without any change in behavior is a pretty transparent failure to the dear woman who married me 37 years ago. I can say that I’m sorry that I didn’t get ready for Advent/Christmas, and Jesus’ First or Second Coming, but there’s that point in time when time runs out! A feeble last second “Sorry!” doesn’t cut it unless I change my ways and get my act together.

A friend of mine, Dr. Jim Harnish, who is Senior Pastor of Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Florida, has a Garrison Keillor Christmas story he likes to use during Advent. It’s about people making their reluctant trek back to Lake Wobegon for Christmas. They have moved away, become smart and sophisticated, but they nevertheless make their way back home. Many annually go to Christmas Eve Mass and listen to Father Emil at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church. Every year he blasts them for not living up to their vows, in spite of it being Christmas Eve.

Others go to Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. One of Keillor’s classic descriptions is about Larry Sorenson’s annual Christmas visit to church: “Larry the Sad Boy was there, who was saved twelve times in the Lutheran Church, an all-time record. Between 1953 and 1961, he threw himself weeping and contrite on God’s throne of grace on twelve separate occasions – and this in a Lutheran church that wasn’t evangelical, had no altar call, no organist playing ‘Just As I Am Without One Plea’ while a choir hummed and a guy with shiny hair took hold of your heartstrings and played you like a cheap guitar – this is the Lutheran Church, not a bunch of hillbillies these are Scandinavians, and they repent in the same way that they sin: discreetly, tastefully, at the proper time, and bring a Jell-O salad for afterward. Larry Sorenson came forward weeping buckets and crumpled up at the communion rail, to the amazement of the minister, who had delivered a dry sermon about stewardship, and who now had to put his arm around this limp, soggy individual and pray with him and see if he had a ride home. Twelve times. Even the fundamentalists got tired of him. Granted, we’re born in original sin and are worthless and vile, but twelve conversions are too many. God didn’t mean us to feel guilt all our lives. There comes a point when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and start grappling with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof and make church coffee and be of use, but Larry kept on repenting and repenting.”

Jim Harnish and my pottery dilemma 2012 remind me that Advent is a time of repenting; but it’s also an urgent call to rise up from repenting and be of use! So wail I will for more than a few moments about things I shouldn’t have done or left undone, but the time has come TODAY to move on and really do something to get ready for Jesus. Talk is cheap and I owe the Birthday Boy more than that!

Thanks-Giving!

It’s hard to pray for my favorite team in the upcoming Carolina-Clemson game. Prayer and sporting events haven’t worked out that well for me in the past. Yes, the last few years as a Gamecock fan have been beyond my highest expectations – Steve Spurrier has tied Rex Enright for the most wins; this senior class has won more games (36) than any other in USC history; the Gamecocks have won 11 straight home games, a new record; the baseball team won back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011, and was runner-up this year. It’s been great but can we beat Clemson in football 4 years in a row? That is what’s on the line this coming Saturday. I feel like I’m being greedy because I would have settled for one in a row not too long ago.

Need I say more about praying for sports teams? If I pray for the best team to win, that team might not necessarily be mine, especially with Connor Shaw limping and Jadeveon Clowney gimpy, too. So, this year I know exactly what kind of prayer I should pray. It should be a prayer of thanksgiving. Gosh, We’re 9-2! The same could be true for Clemson folks at 10-1, too, and perhaps for fans of about every team except Kentucky and Tennessee. I have a lot to be thankful for as a Carolina fan, but more so as a human being.

There are so many blessings that are better than the vicissitudes of sports. There are many good and great things that overshadow an entire world’s bad news. In the midst of the somber we can either give in to depression or count our blessings. We all know which is better for us, even when it’s tough to do. My biggest thanks is that Narcie is two and half years away from Brain Tumor surgery on a oligodendroglioma and she is doing great! Please keep praying for her!

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? In a village in Denmark, there is a beautifully landscaped cemetery next to the community church. A visitor noted that at least a third of the gravestones there have the inscription, “Tak,” written upon them. That’s Danish for “Thanks.” What a wonderful sentiment whether it’s meant as gratitude towards God for blessing us with life, or as thanks to the people who visit and helped us get through life. Annie Dillard captures this same attitude in her words, “I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his or her host at the door.” “Thanks!” aims positive energy towards God and others.

Without thanksgiving our prayers are too much about us. We end up treating God like some sort of Cosmic Genie. I know it’s something that I sometimes do. Often in my prayers I spend a lot of time on the things that I need or what I think others need. This part of prayer is called “supplication.” We often spend the majority of our prayer time focusing on what we want God to supply, rather than saying, “Thanks.”

A Biblical model for prayer starts with Adoration, praising God for who God is. Next is Confession as we repent and ask for forgiveness. Thanksgiving comes after confession as we express our gratitude to God for what God has done. Lastly, Supplication is when we ask God to supply the needs of others or ourselves. This A.C.T.S. model for prayer works if we end with supplication and begin with praise and thanksgiving.

This Sunday is a time for us to express these altruistic sentiments. It’s not only Thanksgiving Sunday, but it’s also Christ the King Sunday – the last Sunday in the Christian Year. There’s no better day to get ready for Advent and Christmas when we especially need to remember the Guest-of-Honor at His own birthday! As I think about churches trying to catch up on their budgets and connectional giving responsibilities, I’m reminded of the story about the couple in the aftermath of World War II. They were getting ready to go to the memorial service for the son of friends of theirs. The young man had been killed in the service. His family was dedicating a window in their church to this young man who had lost his life. The window cost $10,000.

“What a beautiful thing to do in memory of their son,” the wife said to her husband. Suddenly, she turned around with an ashen look on her face and said, “What are we going to give?” Her husband replied, “What are you talking about? We don’t need to give anything. Our son came back alive and well.” “That’s exactly what I mean,” his wife responded. “Our friends lost their son, and they’re giving $10,000. We got our son back, and we’re not giving anything???”

Count and account for your blessings!