Welcome to the Party!

I haven’t written many blogs lately because the world is full of people sharing their opinion. I still have lots of thoughts about things but I want to help ease the tension rather than cause more. So these days preacher humor is a primary delight for me. If I’m not careful I will wander into the abyss of trying to find a Scripture text to fit the great joke that I just heard. Honey works better than vinegar in a sermon any day. To his horror a pastor just about to preach realized that he had left his sermon notes in his study. As his apology, he said, “This morning I shall have to depend upon the Lord for what I might say, but next Sunday I will come better prepared.” Yeah, right?

Who needs notes for a kind word, a saving word? If you know the joke, if it struck a chord then it’s easy to retell. So it should be with the Gospel. Jesus brings Good News. Every worship service should be more like a wedding reception than a funeral. Last Sunday I asked everyone to turn around and say, “Welcome to the party!” It was fun and uplifting. Some people better than others can brighten up my day, but we all can spread the cheer in our otherwise stressed world.

NFL millionaires taking a knee, North Korean nukes and ICBM’s, Trump, Congress, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Wildfires, Walls, Racism, and more, what’s the hot topic on your mind or Facebook feed? What’s the crisis about at your house, or in your community? Some people make sure they’re plugged into the concerns of the world. They meet with their morning coffee group or hang out at the barber shop. I have friends like that, and cherish my time with Cindy in the early evening when we watch the news. We tongue-in-cheek call it the “War News,” because that’s what my parents called it, and they called it that because it was usually true. It still is. How many years have we had in the last one hundred that didn’t have a war somewhere on the globe? Zero. All the more reason for us to hear some good news, especially THE Good News!

I don’t do a morning coffee group or a regular golf foursome, but I do go to the Y every morning during the week. I flip between news channels at 5:30 a.m. and they can’t seem to agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day! All of the issues are important to someone, but, like it’s said, “Politics is all local.” In other words, what matters is what matters to you, your locale, community, where you live, work, and walk, so I look at the local news or the Weather Channel. You can’t get more local than that.

So who do discuss things with – the things that really matter? Is it your golf friends, your book club buddies, your Sunday School Class, or whomever? I heard of a preacher recently who asks people to send him texts during his sermons so he can respond and literally connect with the congregation. That is a little much for my taste, and I can’t type that fast. Autocorrect isn’t usually my friend either. In our polarized society I much rather prefer to focus on Jesus, and connect with people using humor. I want people to leave St. John’s with the sense that God was pleased with their worship, that it was a joyful celebration of faith over fear.

This is annual meeting season in United Methodist churches. We elect officers, make plans, and vote on other important matters. We get to celebrate connectionalism, the United Methodist hallmark that says “Together We Can Do More!” That’s the point of having a cadre of friends to share with, and sharing a vibrant worship service. We get to connect with God and one another.

Six months after the owner of a little store at a crossroads was appointed postmaster the folks in Washington started getting complaints. Not one piece of mail had left the village. The postmaster was investigated. He explained his reasoning, “It’s simple. The bag ain’t full yet!” What a poor excuse. What if we acted like that? What if we waited until our lives we’re full of blessings before we shared any of them? If we waited until we could afford children to have them then there certainly wouldn’t be many.

Our bag doesn’t have to be full for us to share our blessings with others. If your bag isn’t full, that doesn’t matter. Use what you have. Share what has been generously given to you. Enrich the lives of others with what you have right now. Smile and spread all the joy that you can. Remember that joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. In our frazzled and stressed world we get to be God’s smile. Let it show! Tell a good one for me. I need some new material!

Take a Smile Pic

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Valuing Diversity

When I was a youth you either pulled for the Baltimore Colts or the Green Bay Packers. We divided up in other ways, too. People were often defined by their affinities or choices. In my hometown you either liked Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr, Fords or Chevys, the Red Sox or Yankees, and South Carolina or Clemson.

There wasn’t much wiggle room. Today we are even more polarized: red state/blue state, pro-gun/no-gun, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, and Fox/CNN. One of the few positives out of this horrific hurricane season is that the things that normally divide us don’t matter as much when we’re facing calamities together.

Being united in common cause is so much needed, hurricane or not. Wouldn’t it be great if bi-partisanship ruled the day rather than acrimonious finger-pointing? When we start pre-judging instead of pre-loving others we make assumptions that are usually false. A lot of our differences disappear when we get the facts and get to know someone personally.

Some of you know that I’m a member of GCORR (General Commission on Religion and Race), an agency of the United Methodist Church that works for reconciliation and grace across racial and tribal lines. It is the can-do group in the UMC that promotes a three-fold mission to promote intercultural competency, institutional equity, and vital conversations. We provide resources and training so that people can value each other and create systems that will be fair to all. We encourage conversations so that the grace of Jesus Christ might not be bound by any individual’s or group’s sense of supremacy over another. We want to help people know all the facts and back-stories of those that they assume are different from them.

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to be driving down the highway with a stuck horn and have a motorcycle gang in front of you then you know that you would love it if they knew that you couldn’t help it. But, they didn’t know all the facts. I’ve been in traffic with my lights stuck on bright. People blew their horns, threw up “Hawaiian Good Luck” gestures, switched their lights to hi-beam, and even swerved into my lane. If they knew the whole story then they would probably be more sympathetic.

Knowing people’s back stories can help us avoid paralyzing polarization and judgment. For instance, when I was a kid, born and raised in the South, there was a certain common opinion about Yankees. I was in college before I knew that what we used to call Northerners was actually two words. There was an automatic word that went with “Yankees.” Then I got married, graduated from college, and Cindy and I moved to Boston for seminary. I remember some of the linguistic and cultural differences. We stopped at a McDonald’s on Boston’s North Shore. I went inside and came back to the car without any food. Cindy asked what was up and I replied, “I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.”

We had to learn a whole new lingo. A “tonic” was a “coke.” The “rubbish” was the “trash can.” A nearby town was named Peabody which I pronounced as Pee-body and they said Pee-bah-dee. My first request for a milk shake was a surprise. The person waiting on me poured milk into the stainless steel cup and put it under the agitator and handed me shook milk. I learned that what I really wanted was called a “Frappe” up there. There are numerous examples of similar experiences.

Until moving up North one of my favorite stories in a Southern-pride sort of way was about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman after he burned Atlanta. He was traveling down I-20 (not really) on the way to Savannah when he and his men started taking sniper fire from the top of Stone Mountain. He told 3 of his men to go up there and take care of the lone Confederate sniper. They went, and, after a big commotion, all 3 came flying off the summit. Sherman then sent 12 men and the same thing happened. Then Sherman sent 40 men and told them to take care of this Southern soldier. 39 of the men came flying off, but one, bloodied and near death, came back down. He said to Sherman, “General, it’s a trick! There’s 2 of them!” Yes, in my ignorant cultural allegiance and prejudice, I thought better of those below the Mason-Dixon Line than those above it.

What moved me from thinking of Northerners as DY’s was getting to know people, specifically Keith and Ella Nutter. They were members of Memorial UMC in Beverly, Massachusetts, next door to Salem, where I was a pastoral intern. We visited them often and became friends. After graduation they sent us a new subscription to “Yankee Magazine” every Christmas, and we sent them “Southern Living.” I learned that Yankees and Southerners aren’t that different. We just had to get to know each other!

Remember Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham? The main character is circled and badgered by Sam-I-Am to the point of utter frustration. The main character says, “That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am! I do not like Sam-I-Am!” Because he doesn’t like Sam-I-Am, he rebuffs Sam-I-Am’s constant offer of green eggs and ham: “I do not like green eggs and ham,” but when he finally tries it, he likes it, and also ends up liking Sam-I-Am. Getting to know someone. Having the whole story and all the facts make a huge difference. Too often we would rather prefer to judge others and separate ourselves from them.

Without knowing the whole story some people thought that Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was anti-patriotic when he was sworn in. As he took the oath in 1963 he raised his left hand instead of his right one. Everybody thought it was some kind of protest. Boy, were they wrong. Daniel Inouye served in the US Army during World War II. He was wounded fighting in Italy and earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart with clusters, and the Bronze Star. The reason he didn’t raise his right hand is because it was blown off during an enemy attack. He went on to honorably serve in the US Senate until his death in 2012.

My joy in serving in Aiken, South Carolina is that everybody here pretty much chose to be here, moved here on purpose for work or retirement, and are from everywhere. The diversity is refreshing and adds a vibrancy to the city. My hope is that we emulate what this city has done so well: Diversity is a good thing. Value each other!

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Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I work out at the Y early in the mornings. The elliptical machine is my friend. Treadmills kill my knees and hips. An episode of “Matlock” lasts an hour, so that’s how long I do the elliptical. I plug in my ear buds and watch and perspire. Ben Matlock, played by the now-deceased actor, Andy Griffith, believes in the American justice system’s premise that a person is “innocent until proven guilty,” but he always asks if the person did the crime before he takes a case. He never takes the case of someone that he suspects is guilty, but Jesus does it all the time!

Jesus knows we’re all guilty and loves us anyway. The historic Christian faith is very similar to Napoleonic law. It labels accused criminals as “guilty until proven innocent.” As harsh as that sounds to Americanized ears, it’s so true from a Christian perspective. We’re all guilty, and the only way to be proven innocent is through God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

My Dad taught me my first theology lesson about guilt and innocence, and it was about original sin. As a teenager when I thought I was doing some “new” sin that was historic in the annals of our family, my Dad said to me: “You surely don’t think that you’re the first one in this family to try that. Your brothers tried it. Your uncles did. I did. So did your grandfathers. There ain’t nothing original about Original Sin.” He was so right in many ways!

Sure, Jesus’ work of redemption erases just enough of Original Sin so that we can respond to God’s prevenient grace, but it’s still God’s action and not some inherent goodness in humankind. We may be made in God’s image, but the only place Wesley and Calvin agreed is that all humanity is totally depraved. We are lost. We cannot save ourselves! If we gloss over or pretend away the effects of that total depravity then we have reduced grace to a self-help farce. The only cure for the ills of this world, stretching from Charlottesville to my den, is Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, I am hell bent and hell bound. Those are strong words, but anything less is humanistic claptrap.

For example, I dearly love my grandchildren. I love stories about how innocent all children are. One, in particular, comes to mind as I mull all this “innocent until proven guilty” or “guilty until proven innocent” stuff over. In the story a guy asks a 7 year old girl, “What is life all about?” She replies, “The purpose of life is to be kind and loving, to be here for other people, to make the world a better place than before you came.” The impressed guy then asks, “Did you learn all this from your parents?” The little girl replies, “No.” They guy asks, “In school?” “No.” “At church, then?” “Uh, no.” “Well, where then did you learn such things?” asks the guy. The little girl thinks and finally says, “I just knew them before I came here.”

Ah, yes, before we came here. I know that the longer any of us live the more we’re affected by the corrupt world. However, in all honesty, the world doesn’t do the corrupting. Adam and Eve and all their children, including little children and big ones, do the corrupting. I don’t know how Original Sin is transmitted. I’ve studied the arguments and listened to angles that suggest some sort of biological answer, or a theoretical legal argument that since Adam was our representative, we, too, are corrupted. Frankly, it matters little to me how we got to where we are, but I know that every human from both a Biblical perspective and personal experience is in need of a Savior. We cannot save ourselves. From our earliest cries we are self-centered and the Image of God in us is marred beyond any self-made solution to our ills.

Therefore, I deplore any kind of supremacist attitude. Pre-judging is an anathema to me, but one thing is certain: we have all been weighed on God’s balance scales and found wanting. God in Jesus has pre-loved us though. “Even while we were yet sinners,” says Romans 5:8, “Christ died for us.” The foot of the cross is level because none of us is better than anyone else, as much as I think some people will go to hell a lot more quickly than others. But, I’m not God. God knows that we all have messed up, came into the world that way, and in Wesley’s words have both “inherited sin” and “actual sin.” The Good News, however, is that God loves us enough to offer us redemption. Unlike Original Sin, redemption is not inherent in each person, but it’s possible. It takes a choice. Do we choose to look down our noses at others? Sure. Do we choose to race-bait and kill? Yes. So, how can we be redeemed? Choose Jesus! He has already chosen us!

Jesus provides grace, but one has to accept it. There’s a story that makes sense to me in this process of redemption: There was a young monk who sat outside a monastery every day with his hands folded in prayer. He looked pious as he chanted his prayers day after day thinking that he was somehow acquiring grace. One day the head priest of the monastery sat down next to the young monk and started rubbing a piece of brick against a stone. Day after day he rubbed one against the other. This went on week after week until the young monk finally blurted out, “Father, what are you doing?” The older priest said, “I’m trying to make a mirror.” “But that’s impossible!” said the young monk. “You can’t make a mirror from brick.” “True,” replied the mature priest. “And it is just as impossible for you to acquire grace by doing nothing except sitting here chanting all day.”

We can’t earn grace, but we can accept it. I wish I could get that through my thick head. There is no room for racism, prejudice, or any sense of supremacy. Only Christ is supreme. My prayer is that we will all invite Him to sit on the throne of our hearts.

Matlock Picture

21 Life Lessons for Graduates

Commencement 2017

St. John’s UMC, Aiken, South Carolina – Dr. Tim McClendon

Are you, are we smarter than a fifth grader? Do we have wisdom? The difference between wisdom and knowledge is evident in this story. Knowledge is having the right information and wisdom is putting it to use. The scientist had knowledge but didn’t know how to use it. I know a lot of smart people today, successful people, affluent people, but they’re jumping out of airplanes wearing knapsacks filled with knowledge and stuff they don’t need instead of parachutes filled with wisdom. What is needed in our “Information Age” is not more knowledge, but more wisdom.

My task on this Commencement Day is to help you, all of us, commence, aka “begin” to live with more wisdom. James 1:5-6 says that if we want more wisdom we should ask God and it will be given to us. Proverbs 4:6-9 tells us that if we value wisdom it will protect us, watch over us, exalt us, honor us, and even give us grace. The best source of wisdom and everything else is found in what Jesus said about Himself in John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

I could end there but counting on His wisdom I offer these tidbits on Commencement Day 2017. I share these 21 thoughts in no particular order. Take them or leave them.

  1. Up until now, especially with your senior year, you have been building a resume to get into the college of your choice and/or win a scholarship, too. Some of you have been building a resume for a different track after high school, but either way from here on, my advice is instead of building a resume, build relationships. Do your work, for sure, but if, from here on out in life, you focus on relationships you WILL get into grad school or a leg-up on the next step in your life!
  2. Don’t post anything on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram that you don’t want a future girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, employer in-law to see. Social Media is permanent so be careful. Even if you set your Snapchat time limit at 1 second, it may last in someone’s brain file forever.
  3. Avoid “Selfies”! Our self-centered, self-obsessed narcissistic society is too full of itself. Don’t be one of those people who takes pictures of their meal, their clothes and God knows what else. Group pictures are great but the world has little use for name-dropping, pompous, egotistical people who have a preoccupation with themselves, and appearance over substance. Remember that pride goes before a fall, but the branch that hangs the lowest bears the most fruit. If a fraternity, sorority, or group of friends wants you to be or do something that isn’t you, they aren’t the friends that you need anyway.
  4. Avoid, at all costs, living a “plagiarized” life. Copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own is stealing. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t depend on google, Wikipedia, or Wiki-how for your answers. They’re okay to start with, but you need to do better than that! If you cheat, you will be exposed as a poser in every area of life. Do your own work!
  5. Keep reading and continue doing your homework for the rest of your life. Make sure that your ideas and writing are original. Expand your vocabulary. Read for pleasure and fun. My suggestions would include J.R.R. Tolkien with the Moody Blues playing on your earbuds; anything by N.T. Wright, and the Bible, not necessarily in that order.
  6. Your biggest liability is your need to succeed and please people. It’s okay to fail if you learn from your mistakes and move on! If you make pleasing people your goal in life then you will be a slave to everyone else, and you will always play second-fiddle to whomever you’re trying to please.
  7. When caught in a dilemma, don’t try to force things. Don’t panic, and struggle. Instead, practice purposeful pausing. Walk away, take a break, do something unrelated to your problem and then come back to it. This gives you space and opportunity for an epiphany, and a new insight. Call it “white space,” whatever – just do it and a new way forward will present itself. Trust me!
  8. Every successful person knows that life has foul lines just like a baseball field. Some things are in play and some things aren’t. Some things are out of bounds and plain wrong. They are off limits. I don’t care what the misbehavior is, even if it makes you supposedly happy, it won’t for long, so have standards and live up to them. It’s called “integrity,” from Old French in tegere which means “in touch,” that you have a core of beliefs upon which everything in your life connects or is in touch. In essence, everyone needs to have a core set of values about which we will not hedge, compromise or desert!
  9. Do your classwork or your necessary labor every day in spite of the adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” If you work on your assignments or projects along and along, you’ll actually have more time to relax and play responsibly. Cramming doesn’t promote effective learning nor does procrastinating and waiting until the last minute foster quality work. My adage, “Get it done and have more fun!” Start with the hardest and the toughest thing first and everything else will be more of a pleasure!
  10. Yes, if you don’t already, you will have a laptop, IPhone, Smartphone, and/or a Tablet to use in life, but don’t forget to look up more than you look down. If you’re not careful you’ll walk into a telephone pole, plus you may miss meeting the most important person of your life. Look up and listen to people before you forget what their voices sound like because there will come a time in your life when their voices will begin to fade. Don’t ever, ever, ever, text and drive or your voice will be the first to get silenced! Use proper decorum and mute your cell phones around people you love and situations that demand respect.
  11. Think with your head and not with your hormones. Experimentation only belongs in the lab. Love and physical intimacy are very often two different things, so avoid the complication. There’s nothing casual about casual you-know-what, and it will have permanent consequences. Watch out for users and abusers who want benefits without commitment.
  12. An observation: The music that you love right now in high school will be your favorite for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s the emotional connection to these wonderful years, but whatever the reason, just accept it and enjoy it. Let the music bring back all the good times, even the tough ones. There’s something therapeutic about it. By the way, it doesn’t hurt to make new playlists for every age and stage of life, too, and, guess what, your future children will have their own playlists and they probably won’t sound like yours, but that’s okay. That’s life. Don’t look down on your elders. You will be one someday.
  13. Another observation: You know the saying, “Dance with the one that brought you to the party.” Remember your friends and family who helped get you here. Be loyal. Most importantly, don’t forget your parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, and uncles, and other important adults. I know that your tendency is not to answer your phone, but if one of the people like Mom and Dad or Granddad and Grandma call you, answer the phone, and not with a text, if you can help it. There are some of us who can talk faster than we can type and we’d rather hear the sound of your voice because your voice matters and we can tell a lot more from its sound, inflection, and tone.
  14. Internships are something that will help you decide your direction in life. If offered an apprenticeship and a mentor, go for it. You get paid for an opportunity to test drive a career, but remember a calling, a vocare, a “vocation,” like the word “voice,” is always better than a career. Callings will always make you happier than a career so listen for the Voice – God’s!
  15. Sure, you hardly ever use cash or a checkbook and that’s very convenient, but please learn how to keep up with your money. Plastic is a great way to go, but being pre-approved for a credit card doesn’t mean that you have to apply for it. There will be tables outside of buildings and along the sidewalks all around your dorm or college student union trying to get you to sign up for all kinds of things like credit cards. Nothing in life worth having is free, so beware! And when you use plastic for everything, be moneywise and make sure to check your balances often. Avoid student and personal debt like the plague.
  16. The mantra in our everyday lives is that “If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter!” Other interpretations of this mind-over-matter philosophy say things like, “If it feels good, do it!” or “YOLO” – You Only Live Once. What a crock – whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or sex – there will be a payday someday. Instead of “YOLO,” the truth is, “YODO,” You Only Die Once. Therefore, don’t be foolish. You are not invincible. Accidents happen. Make sure you have health insurance and buy a life insurance policy, too. The younger you get it, the cheaper. Do not separate your thinking from your doing. There are serious unintended consequences to everything. The only sure thing about instant gratification is that it only takes an instant to lose everything. Pretending you can believe one thing with your mind and do the opposite with your body is malarkey.
  17. Then there’s “Virtual Reality,” which is mind-over-matter thought on steroids. This is the philosophical underpinning of our current worldview with its reliance on computers, virtual on-line relationships, and video gaming. We must not forget that as much as we would like some of this to be real, it’s not. Fantasy leagues aren’t reality. Neuroses are something we all use to escape realities we don’t like, but we shouldn’t let “Game of Thrones,” “Trivia Crack,” “Candy Crush Saga” or whatever the latest virtual game is take over our lives to the point where our neuroses become the basis of a psychotic break from reality. When I say, “Get real!” – I mean it. Beware the temptation of living in a fake world with fake friends.
  18. Simple advice: Never buy a new car. Let someone else “eat” the depreciation. A new car loses 20% of its value the first day you drive it home. That’s $4,000 on a $20,000 car. Don’t be afraid of shopping at Goodwill. You actually make a purchase that starts a new fashion trend. Read the book, Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell if you want proof. So, never make impulsive, quick, “I just gotta have it,” knee-jerk decisions whether it’s about shopping, deciding on a major, a boyfriend/girlfriend, or a job selection. You need to be adaptable and never “settle” for anything or anyone. Change is the only constant in life, so as much as you like the new this or that, remember it’s going to change, they are going to change. Get used to this fact and do your best to slow your decision-making down. Keep your cool. Avoid “fake news” and don’t be a Drama Queen or King. Have enough guts to stop being passive-aggressive, and, instead, speak the truth in love. Passive-Aggressive people say things that on the surface seem passive, even helpful, but their intent is to put you down. People want truth-tellers for friends, and will quickly get tired of those who always have too much drama in their lives.
  19. Remember everything does happen for a reason and you’re usually it. Everybody wants to say: “Everything happens for a reason,” and they’re right. Most people want to make God the reason, but God loves us and the whole creation enough to give us free will, so don’t blame God for the crud in your life. Most of the bad and good things happen because of your choices, or the choices of others. The same with the bad things. God doesn’t cause bad things. God helps us get through them. I guess what I’m saying is this, “Take responsibility.” It’s yours. Mom and Dad aren’t going to wake you up for your class or to get to work.
  20. You and your generation have a lot to live up to against difficult odds. A lot of folks think that you’re the most spoiled entitled group ever, and life has been easy for you. I think that most of you know better, but get a job and prove the naysayers wrong. Don’t just make good grades, make excellent ones. Sure, it’s okay to have fun. God wants your life to be joyful, but don’t be foolish, and don’t think you’re owed anything. You have got to earn your due. There’s a young immature dictator in North Korea that is Trouble with a capital “T” because he thinks the world revolves around him. Don’t be that person!
  21. It’s a scary world. How you handle it will say a lot about you and your faith. There will always be malware and ransom-ware that will seek to infect your mind and your computer and shut you down. You’re only worth $300 to hackers, but you’re worth everything to God. Please always remember that Jesus paid the full ransom for your life and it cost him a lot more than a few hundred bucks. So, don’t give into dark thoughts, fears, or worries. Remember that God loves you and will always be with you. Oh, and don’t forget to keep updating your anti-virus protection. It’s even better to make sure that you’re always up to date in your relationship with Jesus! Don’t be a stranger to church and campus ministries, and be sure to come back and see us! We’re your family!

In conclusion, as I have thought about this Graduation and Commencement Sunday, I have recalled a favorite song from my senior year in high school. It’s the song “Tin Man,” by the band “America.” The line keeps going through my head: “But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have…” That’s right. The Wizard of Oz didn’t give the Tin Man a heart. He already had one. If he didn’t then why did he rust from his tears? The Lion didn’t need Oz to give him courage. He had already exhibited that he had courage. The Scarecrow certainly already had a brain. They already had what they needed before they met the Wizard in the Emerald City. So do we. So do you. Each of you already has what you need to reach your version of the Emerald City, too. The yellow brick road awaits. Start walking! Commence!!!

Were You There? Metaphoric Imagery and Jesus’ Passion

I have often used metaphoric imagery in marriage counseling, especially premarital counseling. I ask the couple to close their eyes and picture themselves as a person, animal, place, or thing. They are asked to see themselves in as much detail as possible. What colors do they see? What are they doing? When they finish picturing themselves, I ask them to picture their spouse, or spouse-to-be. What are they – a person, animal, place, or thing? What are they doing in as much detail as possible? Then, lastly, I ask them to put the two pictures together, the image of themselves and the image of their partner, and picture what kind of interaction is taking place, again with as much detail as possible.

It amazes me what people say. Frankly, the couple usually remembers this exercise much more clearly than any other thing I use in counseling. This is what they end up talking about week after week. It truly is a metaphoric image of who they are separately and who they are together. It sparks great conversation. The use of metaphoric imagery has been on my mind a lot this week as I have pondered Jesus’ last days before the resurrection. Where would have been in the crowd? What person do I most resemble in the cast of characters? Would I be a sobbing Mary, a grieving John, a jeering priest, a penitent or impenitent thief, a soldier doing my gruesome duty? Would I dare to say that I feel like Jesus?

So, using metaphoric imagery and a sanctified imagination, make yourself think about the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? That’s the name of an important Lenten hymn for this Holy Week. I want us to imagine what it must have been like to be present on Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, when Jesus was crucified. Too often I jump from Palm Sunday’s loud Hosanna’s to Easter’s Alleluia’s without really plumbing the depths of Jesus’ suffering, and it shortchanges the whole point of it all: Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. He died for yours and mine. It begs the question: What does that mean?

So, all the more, I want to visualize and feel what Jesus went through for us, for me. If I could make you, I would ask that you close your eyes during this whole exercise, but you can wait until I prompt you at the end. Use your five senses of smell, hearing, touch, taste, and sight to make the events of Jesus’ last hours real. What smells would you smell if you were there that fateful day? Some scholars have said that Golgotha was the city’s trash dump as it was located outside Jerusalem’s city gates. Do you smell the refuse and debris, the garbage, and the stench? Some have said that there are times that you can smell death in the air. Some have experienced this casually during a drive in a car. Others of us have smelled it with the passing of family members, or in other life-threatening perilous situations. Do you smell death on this executioner’s hill? Of course, you do. Others say that you can also smell fear. Can you smell Jesus’ fear, the criminals’ fear beside him, Mary’s? I smell it even now. Pure unadulterated fear. What do you smell? Ponder it. Smell it. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you hear? What sounds come to mind? Do you hear the hammers clanging on the nails driven into multiple hands and feet? Do you hear the screams of those who were tortured? Can you hear the awful sound of the soldiers breaking the legs of the two men hanging beside Jesus? Do you hear Jesus’ 7 last sentences: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?) and hear the weight of feeling utterly abandoned; Jesus saying from the cross to his disciple John, “Behold your mother,” taking care of his dear mother Mary, along with his saying to Mary, “Behold your son,” giving her a new son-like relationship in the person of this beloved disciple?

Do you hear Jesus saying “I thirst,” and sense the dryness of his voice; do you hear his words of assurance to the penitent thief beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” even in the midst of the two thieves’ harsh banter; can you listen to Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” to the crowd looking on. Can you imagine his strength to be able to ask forgiveness for his executioners? Can you hear the love and grace in his voice? Do you hear his last words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and “It is finished.” Do you hear the release and resignation that these sentences convey?

Do you hear the soldiers mocking him, the priests jeering, and the crowd daring him to call down heaven’s host to set him free? Do you hear the clink and rattle of dice as the soldiers gambled for his garments? Do you hear the thunder and storm, and the centurion’s declaration as he saw the heaven’s weep, “Truly, this man was the Son of God?” What do you hear? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you feel? What textures come to mind? The wood of the cross is coarse so be careful of splinters. The ropes that were used to raise the cross and set it in place were also rough. Ropes also bound his limbs to the cross as the nails were driven in. Do you feel the cold metal of the nails as they pierced his skin? Do you feel the texture of the cloth of Jesus’ outer garments as the soldiers divided them? Do you feel the textures of the myriad people, flesh and clothes of all kinds, from Simon of Cyrene to me and you, pressing in from all sides? Do you feel the ridges of the blood stains as they settled upon his flayed skin from tip to toe, a thorn-crowned forehead all the way down to his pierced feet? What textures do you feel? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you taste? Do you taste Jesus’ parched lips and their cracked dryness? Do you taste the perspiration? And if someone can smell death, they can also taste desperation. Do you feel how thick the desperation is in the air, and in the people’s hearts? Can you taste the blood? We all have been socked in the mouth at some point, or have bitten our lip, drawing blood. Can you taste the iron-like warmth and its bitterness as the blood flowed that day? What do you taste? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you see? Close your eyes now for sure. What colors do you see? Red, brown, white, blue, or the deepest darkest gray? Look over the crowd. Who stands out? Surely you see the three crosses and the men upon them. You see the sign over Jesus’ head and the INRI, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Can you see the priests, the women, Mary, and John? What do you see? Who do you see? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

With eyes still closed, where are you on Golgotha?

Militant or Meek?

Militant or meek? As Christians, we swing between the two poles of righteous indignation and passive appeasement. In these days of marches and shouting, what is our proper stance? Do we pick up our signs and yell for justice, do we yield to the Caesars of the world, or is there another way? Oh, how I respect those like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christian theologian and pastor, who felt like he must actively participate in an assassination plot on Hitler, and was executed for it. Talk about taking meaningful action. But then, on the other hand, who can forget the powerful witness of thousands of Christians who went to their deaths gladly and peacefully in the ancient arenas, and those who still do today in modern killing fields?

Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” writes, “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…” Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced non-violence and exhibited the more excellent way of 1 Corinthians 13: the power of love over the love of power.

Similarly, Mother Teresa suffered indignity when she first began her work among the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India.  She was obstructed at every turn by government officials and orthodox Hindus, who were suspicious of her motives and used their authority to harass her and to frustrate her efforts. She and her fellow sisters were insulted and threatened with physical violence. One day a shower of stones and bricks rained down on the women as they tried to bring the dying to their humble shelter. Eventually Mother Teresa dropped to her knees before the mob. “Kill me!’ she cried in Bengali, her arms outstretched in a gesture of crucifixion, “And I’ll be in heaven all the sooner.” The rabble withdrew but soon the harassment increased with even more irrational acts of violence and louder demands were made of officials to expel the foreign nun in the white sari, wearing a cross around her neck.

One morning, Mother Teresa noticed a gathering of people outside the nearby Kali Temple, one of the holy places for Hindus in Calcutta. As she drew closer, she saw a man stretched out on the street with turned-up eyes and a face drained of blood. A triple braid denoted that he was of the Brahmin caste, one of the temple priests. No one dared to touch him, for people recognized he was dying from cholera. Mother Teresa went to him, bent down, took the body of the Brahmin priest in her arms and carried him to her shelter. Day and night she nursed him, and eventually he recovered. Over and over again he would say to the people, “For 30 years I have worshipped a Kali of stone. But I have met in this gentle woman a real Kali, a Kali of flesh and blood.” Never again were stones thrown at Mother Teresa and the other sisters.

What an example! As much as I am natured to be militant, I am reminded that Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek…” Yes, we must work for justice and protect the innocent, the sojourner, but we must not adopt the ways of the world in doing so. I am struck by the militancy of so-called leaders who read Scripture in a Thomas Jefferson-like manner that selects Bible passages to suit their purpose. The same thing was done to justify the Crusades’ butchery or the South’s defense of slavery. I pray that we be very careful to emulate Jesus more than the savagery of Satan.

Many of the same people who are clamoring, “The Scripture always says to open your gates to the stranger and immigrant,” are those who also vehemently dismiss the long-held view that every time homosexuality is mentioned in the Old or New Testaments, it’s always condemned. In the latter case, they mark traditionalists as “cherry-pickers” or proof-texters, but when its use suits their fancy, they are quick to point us to between four and six Bible verses that supposedly instruct every Christian everywhere in exactly where they must stand on immigration policies. The result is that, at least this week, the book of Leviticus is suddenly in the American public’s favor again. This is also just one illustration of how hard the work of Christian ethics is when we try to claim we’re right and others are wrong. There are no easy answers. Though I prefer to be a militant protester who goes nuclear against injustice, I must consider the best practices from Christian history. The Church has been at its best when it has embraced peace and not terrorist tactics.

Sadly, I have seen religious terrorism in church. Every pastor I know has had to deal with “well-intentioned dragons” who undermine and attack clergy. Psalm 35 is written for you! What’s so great about it is that it asks God to deal with the naysayers, not us. There are people in the United Methodist Church that have wreaked havoc in every General Conference to which I’ve been elected. In six GC’s since 1996 I’ve been slapped, spit on, and threatened. I’ve seen meetings where hundreds of delegates from all over the world have gathered, at a cost of $100,000 per minute, shut down by a vocal party of a contrasting few who, for the most part, were not even United Methodists. The worst experience was in 2004 at Pittsburgh when a protest group smashed the Communion Chalice on the floor. These harsh tactics have not helped anyone’s cause.

If we are to make progress in justice and harmony in this world, it must be done by showing the strength of love and meekness. Inflaming others through the world’s tactics reminds me of Jesus’ words to Peter in Gethsemane: “Put your sword away, Peter. Those that live by the sword, shall die by it.” May we embrace peace and meekness, however illogical or painful it is. May we expose the deeds of darkness by rising above it through our good deeds, not with the torches of hateful rhetoric or foul actions. It is so counter cultural to live a life that “rolls over and takes it,” but I would rather be like Jesus than a religious terrorist. In our world of quid pro quo and “eye for an eye,” we must avoid revenge and worldly anger. We’re better than that! We follow the Prince of Peace.

MLK and Nathan Bedford Forrest: Walking in Memphis

Last week I was in Memphis for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy. We had productive time together as we met just up from Beale Street at The Peabody Hotel, famous for its lobby ducks. One thing we didn’t duck was the racial history of Memphis. Bookends to pain are plain to see. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is there. So is the statue and burial place of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Lorraine Motel is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest, former KKK Klansman and Confederate general, was a citizen of Memphis until his death on October 29, 1877 and is buried in a city park. He is depicted on his cavalry horse for all to see. We passed it every day. Picturing the Lorraine Motel and that statue of Forrest was disturbing.

To plenty of people MLK Day is a brief break after Christmas to help us catch our collective breath after a busy Christmas season. In Memphis there is visible evidence that the racial divide in our American experience is still very real. Ours is the ongoing experiment to overcome racism and its main tool: tribalism. Christmas season had http://www.ancestry.com ubiquitous over the airwaves with TV ads and Facebook postings about people discovering their ancestral past through DNA. This may help in verifying some genealogical research, but it promotes tribalism.

You may ask, “What’s wrong with it?” Well, tribalism tends to set one group against another. I had a history professor at Carolina that was a member of the Hitler Youth. He dared to teach us to sing “Deutschland über Alles,” “Germany Above All,” in class. We saw the temptation of tribalism this past Monday with the National Championship football game between Clemson and Alabama. Clemson fans booed Steve Spurrier as a new inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame because he coached at their bitter rival, South Carolina. There were plenty of South Carolina fans pulling for Alabama instead of Clemson for the similar tribalistic reasons. It seems to be a part of human nature to form tribes, and think ours is better than someone else’s.

There is evidence to support that Nathan Bedford Forrest repudiated much, if not all, of his racist tendencies as he dropped out of the KKK and sought racial reconciliation. We also know that Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Amen to that!

The United Methodist Church calls this Sunday before MLK Day, “Human Relations Sunday.” Its purpose, according to the UM Book of Discipline, 2016, Par. 263.1, is to occur during Epiphany, a season manifesting God’s light to the world. Human Relations Day “calls the church to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with one another.” How I wish we, as the church, did this better. The most segregated hour during the week is still from 11 am to 12 Noon on Sundays. This coming Monday we are invited to Second Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Aiken, for dinner and a movie. The movie, Selma, will be shown followed by a discussion. The time will be from 4-7:30 pm.

My hope is that we will forfeit our tribalism and give our primary allegiance to God. We all need Jesus desperately. No one has a right to feeling smug. “Except for the grace of God, there go I…” levels elitism to a posture of mutual valuing and collaboration. That’s the essence of the work of The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race of which I am glad to be a member. By the way my DNA testing confirmed family stories and suspicions with a few surprises: Eight percent sub-Saharan African, double digits Native American, a whole bunch of Irish (a shocker for a Scotsman), and plenty of Viking Scandinavian, with a smattering of middle European Jewish. Some would say I’m a mutt. Well, I’m an American who believes more in us being a melting pot than a salad bowl separated into tribes of tomatoes, romaine or iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and bacon bits.

I like praying, “Our Father who art in heaven,” not “my.” I like singing, “When We all get to heaven. I very much like the TV show, The Story of Us. It’s up to me to spread the tent wider and work for the Book of Revelation’s description of heaven so that it comes true. Rev. 7:9a says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

This should be our refrain, something to repeat, which is what a refrain does. Refrains, however, for the preacher, vocalist and the actor do more than repeat things. A refrain is the jazz-like ebb and flow of oratory from Shakespeare to Martin Luther King, Jr. that invites us to belong to the play, to own the words. Think of MLK’s phrases, “I have a dream,” until it’s our dream, not just his. Hear his words, “Let freedom ring,” until we all pray for the bells to peal the news that the Jubilee has come.

Walking in Memphis did me some good. Marc Cohn agreed. Give a listen.

 

 

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie: The Brutality of Christmas

Who doesn’t want to skip the “Death of the Holy Innocents” and just focus on the Magi? No one in his or her right mind wants to spoil the joy of Christmas by preaching Herod’s murder of the children two years old and under. This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading stops well shy of Herod’s murderous ways and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees. This unrealistic portrayal of the Incarnation is exactly what fuels the holiday emphasis on nostalgic sentimentality. Herod’s actions starkly remind us why this world needs a Savior. Herod lives in us every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, the refugee, and the sinner.

Like all who love feel-good Christmas, I bemoan the death of innocence in our children, but they must not be shielded from the desperate children of Aleppo or the ones down the street. The down side of Christmas for most Westerners is that the real truth gets massaged and postponed until credit card bills come due. Poor and rich alike enjoy their pretties though they differ in cost. We all want a happy ending, but Matthew’s birth narrative doesn’t have one until after truth speaks to power through the dreams offered to the Magi and Joseph. The Magi are warned to not go back to Herod, and Joseph is told to escape to Egypt. Herod is foiled by God through the obedience of those who would heed God’s dreams.

What dreams might God have for each of us in 2017? Will we heed them? Will we obey and take on Herod, or stay in ignorant bliss? But as much as we try to lie to ourselves, there will be valleys of the shadow falling across our lives in 2017. The beginning of a new year gives a hint of hope, but offers little change for the refugees, the frail, the unemployed, or the overwhelmed unless the rest of us do something about the evil lurking in the world’s Herod-like fat cats. Instead of pulling babies from the sullen stream one after another, isn’t it time to go upstream and stop whomever is throwing them in? We sing Don MClean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” with gusto while we’re unsure of its sad meaning. We shouldn’t let its catchy tune and cryptic words dull our sensitivities. It dares us to ask where hope is in a cruel world.

The Holy One who offers hope shows up during Epiphany season through signs and wonders that remind us of God’s presence. It’s up to us to act on these epiphanies, to use them as inspiration. The Magi did it by following a star and a dream, and financing the Holy Family’s escape through their gifts. Joseph had his dreams, too, and acted on them. God speaks through many means and wise men and women still follow. This Gospel is all the more real because its light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Without recognizing and dealing with Herod and his kin, Christianity is what Marx called, “the opiate of the masses.” There’s enough opioid addiction in our world already. The church mustn’t be complicit in its lie.

A Christmas pageant without Herod is a feel-good farce. On Christmas Eve we saw candles brighten our sanctuary, but sanctuary must be a place of protection for everyone: the least, last, lowest, and lost. We must heed Jesus’ words to so let our light shine through good deeds so that God might be glorified (Matthew 5:16). This isn’t earning our way into heaven through social action separated from its supernatural root in God’s saving grace. Compassion for kindness’ sake is nice, but is just as much a syrupy humanism as Christmas without Herod. To think that the world’s ills can be eradicated by human action without divine intervention is to miss the real reason for Jesus’ coming and coming again. But, don’t stop! Our good deeds do bring some of heaven’s glow to every refugee family that we know. They are all around us, but we can do so much more if we do everything we do in Jesus’ mighty name and power.

There was a refugee walking down the sidewalk by the church earlier, head slumped over, with barely enough strength to put one foot in front of the other. He knows all about the Herod’s of this world. He hasn’t had enough light in his life to dispel the darkness. A gift of a left-over poinsettia wasn’t enough. He needed a meal. His Christmas was marred by family dysfunction, substance abuse, and a vain attempt to dull the pain. The real truth of the Gospel is that God will outlast all the Herod’s. Herod’s come and go, but God’s love endures forever.

Western liberalism, as I’ve seen its philosophy practiced, and observed its political machinations, is in its death throes. It can only offer short-term wins that are transitory. Mostly the elite hold onto it, and piously and pompously discuss how all we need to do is to become better people and nicer. What hubris! The humanistic demand to accept everything and everybody has a problem, though. His name is Herod. I’m not afraid to call on God to defeat him. As a matter of fact, it’s the only way! Epiphany reminds us that we cannot save ourselves, therefore we need God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Anything or anyone less is laughable to Herod. Only Jesus causes him to quake in fear. I will enter 2017 committed to holding onto Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Come Lord Jesus, come!

Listen to the 13th century English Coventry Carol and hear the plaintive cry of Bethlehem’s mothers in the midst of loss. Their tragic plight must be noted or Herod wins. It’s not pretty. It’s not meant to be, but it’s real. Authentic faith calls upon God to deliver us from evil. First we have to admit that it exists.

 

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?

barrington-picture

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!