The Whole Story: Being Charitable at Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Longings – Past and Future Make the Present Better!

Should I long for Christmas past or future? The way things used to be is a tempting road to travel. There are good memories even when things were difficult. My Mother had a major stroke in late fall 1992 and was in a coma for several days. I clung to her bed-rail asking her to wake up and come back. Out of motherly love she did, but it was a terribly difficult life for her. She could barely smile and move just one hand. She couldn’t walk or speak above a whisper.

Christmas 1992 was tough. Mother had a little tree with lights in her nursing home room, but it was hard to see her like she was. Just before Christmas, Cindy and I and the children visited on my parent’s anniversary, December 23. I had the flu and wasn’t allowed inside. Cindy and our children were in the room and I was outside her window looking in. We tried to sing Christmas carols to her with me trying loud enough for her to hear me through the glass. I’ll never forget her look and her smile back at me as she was propped up on a pillow.

She died thirteen days later, January 5, 1993, from another stroke. Oh, how I have missed her, but wished I had let her go months earlier, but I was too selfish. I still feel guilty for begging her to wake up from her initial stroke. She would have been so much better off. We have to love people enough to let them go to that place where there is no more pain or sorrow. But it’s hard, isn’t it? I was only 36, way too young, in my mind, for my Mom to die.

Longing for Christmas Past is nostalgic and idyllic, but it isn’t reality. As Christians we are more a New Jerusalem people than Garden of Eden ones. Living in the past isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Sure, there are fond memories, but the future is the culmination of our hope. Adam and Eve were exited from Eden after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cherubim with flaming swords kept them from going back inside. I used to think that was part of God’s punishment, but I think differently now. If they could have gone back they might have eaten from the Tree of Life, and then having eaten from both trees they would have lived forever knowing both good and evil. That would have been a horrible thing. God wants us to only know good forever so the cherubim with flaming swords were God’s agents of grace.

The New Jerusalem is our destination where there is no sorrow or pain. If the good old days were really that good how did we get into the mess we’re in today? So let’s focus on making the world a better place and working for God’s preferred future. What can we do to make the Kingdom come when all things will be set right, no more evil, injustice, sickness or oppression?

To be honest, some of that future vision does depend on a recollection of the past. I think that it’s okay to reminisce about lessons learned and people who graced our lives in years gone by. The past becomes a tutor and that’s okay, but that’s very different from it being a prison. We need to learn from it, but not languish in it. What helps me most is to remember the good things and try to build on them. That turns the past into a healthy present that springboards us into a great future.

As an example, my Grandmother, Milbria Dorn Jackson, known as “Mib” to many of her friends, conjures up a plethora of memories. Some are great and others not. My perspective is jaded because I lived with her. She was of tough German extraction. There are two smells that immediately come to mind when I think of her: BenGay and Sauer Kraut. There was a kraut jar in the kitchen where she fermented cabbage, and BenGay was her daily medicine for what she called her “neuralgia.”

She wasn’t what I would call the world’s jolliest person. As a matter of fact, she could be pretty stern. She was devoted to my older brother, but my middle brother and I were too rambunctious. I’m just saying, she was tough on us. Papa was jolly and happy, but nobody would claim that Grandmother was the life of the party. She wasn’t!

But, you know if I dwell on the not-so-fond memories of the past, it doesn’t do me much good. It makes me forget the good things like the twinkle of Grandmother’s clear blue eyes. The same eyes of my Uncle J.C. Thinking only of her strict standards makes me forget that she loved to hear me whistle and told me so. Nobody else ever did that. Thinking of her not-so-frivolous nature makes me forget how much she shaped me in good wonderful ways.

There’s a Bible on my shelf in my study that she gave me for Christmas 1964. Let me tell you, as a 9 year old in 1964 I thought that a Bible was the worst present ever. You couldn’t play with it, and it just underscored her usual guilt trips for our shenanigans. I opened it this morning just to glimpse her handwriting and was astounded to read something that I had forgotten was even there. The whole inscription reads: “To Tim from Grandmother, the one that loves you dearly. December 25, 1964.”

Wow, “…the one that loved loves you dearly.” If I only lived in the past of BenGay and Kraut, I would have forgotten the amazing love and gift that it was to experience her daily presence. So my advice is to let the past inform you, but don’t live there. If conjured up, remember the good times and good things. The rest does you very little good. We weren’t meant to stay in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s disaster, but to live forever only knowing good in the New Jerusalem! Savor your good Christmas memories, and make new ones for the future.

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A Christmas Gift From My Mother

Christmas 1978 was memorable, and not for all the right reasons. Cindy and I were in seminary in Boston. We wouldn’t be able to come home for the holidays, but I wanted to spread some cheer, especially to my Mother. She was always keen on doing unselfish things for others. She had a huge heart and was generous to a fault. She didn’t like much fanfare or thanks. She was kind to the core. Plus she was gifted in making crafts which provided a never-ending source of “pretties,” as she called them, to give to people.

One Christmas I recall her melting paraffin and pouring countless quart milk cartoons full of wax to make candles. She painted. She crocheted all sorts of things. At Christmas 1978 she decided to make a gift for President Jimmy Carter’s 11 year old daughter, Amy. Since President Carter had been a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, Mother decided to crochet what she called a “peanut doll” for Amy’s Christmas present. From what she described to me on the phone, it was an elaborately painted peanut with all the features exquisitely done with a full blown costume including a purse and shoes.

She also described the derision that my brother Carlee and my Father heaped on her. They said things like, “She probably won’t even get the doll. The Secret Service will confiscate it.” “You’re wasting all your time on something, and you’ll never even get a thank-you note.” She told me all of their comments, and I decided right then and there to do something about it. Cindy and I might not be able to come home for Christmas, but I could certainly stand up for my Mom. I wanted to silence her critics!

The next Friday I called. My brother answered and I put on a fake voice, “This is James McCabe calling from the White House. I want to express to Mrs. McClendon the gratitude of President and Mrs. Carter for the gift sent to their daughter, Amy.” Before I could say anything else from my script, my brother interrupted, “I’m sorry. She’s not here, but if you will call back in 15 minutes she will be here.” I said, “Certainly. I’ll call back.”

I didn’t think about my Mother’s usual Friday hair appointment at Sara’s in Edgefield. Anyway, I found out what my brother did. He went into town, burst into the all-female domain, blurted out that a phone call from the White House had been received, and that they were calling back in a few minutes. Mother was rushed out with her hair half-completed and whisked home.

I made the call with just the right amount of delay. Mother answered the phone and I went into my spiel: “This is James McCabe, White House Chief of Staff, and I just wanted to convey the President’s thanks for the lovely Christmas gift to his daughter.” I went on a little further and then gave her time to respond. She said, “Thank you so much for calling. I didn’t expect this at all. I just wanted to let Amy know that I was thinking about her and wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas.” She said some other formal sounding pleasantries, ever the Southern Lady in genuine appreciation for the call.

You could smell and hear the honeysuckle dripping. I couldn’t hold back any longer so I semi-yelled, “Mama, it’s me, Tim! I wanted to show up Daddy and Carlee for making fun of you….” She interrupted me, as if I hadn’t said anything or revealed my true identity, and said, “Once again, Mr. McCabe, thank you for your call. My husband and son are standing right here and are so pleased that the White House has called. Have a Merry Christmas and give my best to the President and Mrs. Carter, and, of course, to Amy. Goodbye.”

As I learned later, my brother drove her back into town whereupon she was greeted at Sara’s like a regal queen. No doubt they had heard about my Dad and brother’s mocking of her crocheted Christmas gift to Amy Carter. She told them about the call and got back under the dryer. By afternoon she had been contacted by what we affectionately called the “Edgefield Astonisher.” A front-page article the next week was titled, “White House Phone Call.”

Mother called me and said in no uncertain terms that I should never, ever, ever do anything like that again. My Dad and brother never learned the truth. Mother went to her grave never spilling the beans. I’ve wondered ever since what the moral of this Christmas story is. I think I’ve got it now. Mother always did things for others without ever wanting any thanks. She would have been happy even if she never got a thank-you note from the White House, which she did, by the way, the very next week. I was the one who wanted thanks as I blurted out my name to her on the phone. It was my way of saying, “I’m the one you ought to thank for defending you.”

I was right to defend her, but I was wrong to have wanted her thanks. It made the whole ruse about me more than about her. Well, my lesson was that Mama didn’t need defending nor did she require thanks. I wish that I was more like her every day. We don’t give gifts for the thanks we receive. God sure didn’t when he gave us Jesus, the best Christmas gift of all.

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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!

“Fear Not,” Charlie Browns of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Christmas and a Blessed 2015!

Christmas Day is past and New Year’s Day is almost upon us. Our secular and sacred senses of time collide at this time of year. After all, Christmas isn’t over until January 6th’s Day of Epiphany, the day that commemorates the Magi’s visit to the Christ Child. The secular calendar compels us to put all the hoopla of Christmas behind us and move on to a new year! A lot of people are ready for the scene in New York City to shift from the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center to the ball-drop at Times Square. Putting aside our liturgical sensibilities, most think it’s way past time to make resolutions, start shedding those excess holiday pounds, and get on with paying the bills.

But, wait a minute; hold on, Christmas isn’t over yet. Epiphany season reminds us that the mystery of Christ’s coming brings sustained revelations of God’s majesty. We are dared to savor the experience, not rush past it. God has more to reveal to those who still seek the truth. There are Twelve Days of Christmas and we’re only at number 5! To be honest in our faith, we believe Christmas can and has to be kept all year. The power of God-in-the-Flesh through Christ is a daily necessity in our rebellious world.

Henry Van Dyke sums up my point much better than I in his piece, “Keeping Christmas.” He gives us fodder for New Year’s resolutions and for a great 2015. Here are his words:

“There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.
Are you willing…
• to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you;
• to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world;
• to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground;
• to see that men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
• to own up to the fact that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life;
• to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness.
Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing…
• to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
• to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
• to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough;
• to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
• to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
• to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you;
• to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open—
Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing…
• to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—
• stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—
• and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?
Then you can keep Christmas.
And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?
But you can never keep it alone.”

Let us keep Christmas and may doing so inspire us throughout 2015. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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“Burlap, Boys, and Christmas”

Maybe you’ve read of the hoopla surrounding Christmas worship services on December 28. The reasoning is that we will all be too tired of Christmas festivities by then. The thinking behind this is that the difference between Christmas on Thursday and Sunday’s services is so short as to not make much of a difference anyway. Try using that rationale with Good Friday and Easter! I think that we need Christmas and Easter’s messages every day!

Despite my opinion there’s one local congregation that is cancelling next Sunday’s “live” services just to give the congregation, choir, and staff a break. Their service will be available online. However, I need more than a digital Jesus to fight post-Christmas challenges. Other groups of Christians are dropping the December 28 service because it’s “anti-family.” How appalling! There’s no better time to celebrate family than this season when God chooses to become a part of the human race. The Incarnation of Christ demands that we celebrate this mysterium tremendum: God wants to be a part of all of our families! So I’m preaching every service on the 28th because I need to hear God’s Word as much then as ever. I need to participate in the profundity of God-in-the-flesh and unwrap this mystery anew.

Ralph F. Wilson, in “Burlap, Boys, and Christmas,” gets at the heart of the Incarnation’s tremendous mystery while musing over Christmas pageants: “Angels are clean. Angels are beautiful. They seem almost otherworldly especially since girl angels always seem to know their parts better than do boy shepherds. The angelic satin stuff goes pretty well in most Christmas pageants. The problems come with the burlap part. Do you know what real-life shepherds were like? Townspeople looked down on them. “Herdsmen!” they’d huff derisively. Shepherds would work with sheep all day, sleep outside with the animals at night and then come into town dirty, sweaty and smelly. Like boys. Tradesmen in the marketplace would be polite enough. Shopkeepers would wait on them, but everybody was happy when they moved along. Burlap fits the part. It really does. Angels get clouds and the Hallelujah Chorus for props. Shepherds get a stable. Maybe cattle lowing has a bit of romance. But conjure up the smells and the filth. No stainless steel dairy palace this, but a crude barn, with good reason for straw on the floor. Not exactly the setting you’d choose for a birth if you had the luxury of planning ahead. Angels seem appropriate to the birth of God’s son. But straw and sweat and burlap do not. Why, I ask, would the Son of God Most High enter life amidst the rubble of human existence, at the lowest rung of society, in obscurity and at the stable-edge of rejection even before he is born? And as hard as I think about it, I come back to one truth. God wanted to make it explicitly clear that He came to save each of us. He comes to the slimy, dark corners of our existence, the desperateness, the loneliness, the rejection, the pain. He comes to unswept barns and cold nights of despair. He comes because he understands them. He knows them intimately and came for the very purpose of delivering us from those raw stables to real Life.”

Wow! It is a miracle that God desires to enter this world at all, but how like our God and how grateful we are! Therefore, the reason we worship God together on the Sunday after Christmas is to celebrate this marvelous gift through Christ. The old Appalachian folk hymn aptly describes the worshipful attitude that this mystery should illicit, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, How Jesus the Savior did come for to die, For poor on’ry creatures like you and like I.” The glorious meaning of Christmas is God’s unconditional grace spread across creation. It is perennially profound just as Frederick Buechner put it, “Year after year, the ancient tale of what happened is told raw, preposterous, holy and year after year the world in some measure stoops to listen.” Let’s listen all the more carefully this year! Christmas is absurdly Divine! Merry Christmas and see you Sunday!

Christmas Eve

Last-Minute Christmas Trees

Even today, one week before Christmas, I notice on Facebook that some people are just now putting up their Christmas tree. Part of me thinks, “It’s a little late, isn’t it, and why bother?” There have been those years when we all wonder whether we should put up a tree or not. Family priorities, circumstances, or infirmity may make it an unnecessary luxury. Some of us are going to be traveling to someone else’s house so why not let them deck the halls and decorate a tree? Putting up a tree is such a hassle anyway, but isn’t the mess of Christmas part of the message?

Should we put up a Christmas tree, or not – that is the question for the procrastinators. Although the smell of a tree permeating the house is grand, there’s a cost. Getting a tree, fitting it to the stand, lugging all the ornaments down from the attic, and the sheer horror of untangling the lights is a daunting task. Then there’s the fact that children, pets, and underestimating the size of the tree relative to the ceiling could pose an unsolvable logistical problem, plus the weight of the tree might overwhelm the stand and collapse. So, why take the chance. After all, the whole Christmas tree idea is a co-opting of a pagan Germanic custom that celebrated the midst of life in bleak midwinter, an evergreen to remind the household that there is life after the long arduous cold. The idea isn’t even Christian, right?

But, doesn’t it still make sense? An evergreen does remind us of eternal life in Christ, and wasn’t the first Christmas pretty messy, too? Stables, animals, and shepherds aren’t sanitary hospital delivery rooms. Maybe those procrastinating or worrying about a tree can compromise and get an artificial one, and try not to think, “fake.” When I was a child in the age of modernity’s glory, we had a shiny silver aluminum tree. We used one of those revolving pinwheels of color to add the effect of lights. It was great, sanitized, and the only hassle was looking at the ends of the branches for the code that revealed the proper placement.

But, it wasn’t real, and there’s already too much that isn’t real about Christmas, so out with the artificial tree idea. So back to the real thing: the mess-maker. Old Christmas trees do what every dying thing does. They shed their needles. Don’t you love vacuuming up dead Christmas tree needles months after the holiday. Every time I see another needle, I wonder where they keep coming from. It’s a mess, but isn’t that part of Christmas’ charm: the hustle and bustle, the decorations, even the crowds? Although I long for a simple Christmas, the fact of the matter is that Christmas isn’t simple. It is God’s most elegant extravagance, in keeping with Golgotha and Easter. It begs for a mess and deserves it!

So what kind of tree should I get? Did you ever hear of the lovely legend of the three trees that grew near The Manger – the Olive, the Palm, and the Fir? The Olive made an offering of its fruit and the Palm of its dates. The poor Fir, having nothing to give but worship, raised its boughs in adoration and the Angels hung stars on its branches. Supposedly that’s how the Fir became the first Christmas tree. When Native Americans experienced a spiritual low tide, they revived their vitality by standing with their back to a tree, absorbing its strength and power. Therefore, whatever the tree, a real tree helps open up the real energy of God’s coming to earth as a vulnerable baby, one of us, Immanuel! That’s a message that I need to underscore this Christmas.

Ponder the familiar carol, “O, Christmas Tree” and notice the attributes of God, new life in Christ, and the Incarnation symbolized in the very essence of a Christmas tree – though messy, there’s a message:

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree!

Thy leaves are so unchanging

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Thy leaves are so unchanging!

Not only green when summer’s here,

But also when it’s cold and drear.

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Thy leaves are so unchanging!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

For every year this Christmas tree,

Brings to us such joy and glee.

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

You’ll ever be unchanging!

A symbol of goodwill and love

You’ll ever be unchanging!

Each shining light, Each silver bell

No one alive spreads cheer so well

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

You’ll ever be unchanging!

Christmas tree

Role Models: Zechariah or Simeon

To everyone who hasn’t figured out your family’s Christmas plans, your gift lists, or whether or not you’re going to invite Aunt Sue, the drama queen, to anything – here’s to you! Two weeks from today is Christmas and I’m behind in my decision making and confused. Like being caught between the First Advent and the Second, I am in this tenuous almost there, but not quite mode of either making some hard and fast decisions or just throwing my hands up in the air and go with the flow. My choice is to go with the flow, God’s flow.

Isn’t that what Joseph decided as he heard about the impending birth? He could have really wrecked things. Gosh, Mary absolutely could have refused to say to Gabriel, “Be it unto me as you have said.” All the people from Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Magi, Shepherds, Innkeeper, Herod, Cyrenius, Simeon, and Anna could have make fateful decisions that would have made the Lord’s birth turn out very differently. It is simply amazing how God allowed human freedom of choice to affect his plan of salvation for the world. What a risk, but we have a God who risks and I’m glad!

Now, I know that some of you think that the whole birth thing and everything before and since about everything in life has been a done deal, pre-arranged, and orchestrated, but to do so lessens the love-factor that God embraces for human history. God loves us so much that He allows us to be partners in this thing called life. Our decisions are ours to make, and for God to use, oftentimes having to bring good out of our bad choices.

Well, enough about theological “what-if’s” and human choice and let me get back to what I need to do about Christmas shopping, planning family get-togethers that fit everyone’s schedules, and whether or not we clean the house for the potential aforementioned festivities. I am reluctant to be as compliant as Mary and Joseph, and feel as resistant and befuddled as Zechariah.

Zechariah is an interesting character. He’s a Levitical priest who is married to Elizabeth, Mary’s relative. He’s pulled the duty that places him in the temple and an angel lets him know that he and Elizabeth are going to have a child. What gets me is that he shouldn’t have been very surprised. It says in Luke 1:13 that his prayer has been answered for a baby, but his response to Gabriel the angel is DOUBT in verse 18, “How can I be sure of this?” He’s like people who pray for rain but never carry an umbrella. He’s been praying, but when it comes true, he’s shocked. Go figure, but it sounds like me – maybe you. I think: “Why pray if you’re going to be shocked when you get an answer?”

The character in Jesus’ birth narrative that I would most desire to be like is Simeon. In Luke 2:25-35 we read of this faithful devout man who has been waiting in Jerusalem for who knows how long because the Lord told him that he wouldn’t die before he got a chance to see the Messiah, the consolation of Israel. What I want to emulate is what it says in Luke 2:27, “Moved by the Spirit, he went to into the temple courts.” Wouldn’t my choices turn out better if I did what the Holy Spirit moved me to do? Of course!

Anyway, Simeon sees Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child. He dares to take him in his arms like LeBron James hugging Princess Kate last week in NYC, and then he bursts into song. Simeon sings the “Nunc Dimittis” which says, basically “Now dismiss your servant because I’ve seen your salvation…” He says some other very important things, but what captures me is that he was willing to be faithful enough to wait until God delivered on his promise, obedient enough to be moved by the Spirit, bold enough to take the Savior from Mary’s protective arms, and fearless enough of what other people thought so that he could break out in a song that said, “Lord, now I’m ready to go. I can die in peace because You’ve kept your word and I’ve seen the Savior!”

Who do you want to be like in Jesus’ birth narratives? Who are you like? I may be a Zechariah, but I want to be a Simeon. If I’m like Simeon then the Christmas lists, plans, and what-ifs are going be no big deal. Real choices still need to be made like Simeon’s choice to remain in Jerusalem until God came through, but if I rest in the Spirit my choices will turn out better than okay. Reluctant Zechariah or Expectant Simeon, which shall I be?

Simeon

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.