Saturday, December 24, 2011

Don't try this at home, or at church

As I sit in the quiet on the night before Christmas, I am recalling the most memorable Christmas Eve of my ministry. It happened at Advent Lutheran Church in Uniontown, Ohio. We had an early worship service that was geared for families with young children. It had grown in popularity through the years, along with my creativity as a preacher. One year I had two people dress up in a donkey outfit and I had a little dialogue with them about the first Christmas. Well, it was more a dialogue with the one in the front end, but you get what I mean.

Every year I tried to do something different to bring the Christmas story alive for the kids. And, yes, also to top whatever it was I had done the year before. So, after the Christmas donkey who had carried Mary to Bethlehem, I was wracking my brain to come up with another idea. And then I had a flash of inspiration. Why settle for an animal costume when we could bring a real live animal into the church?

It was a perfect plan. I wrote a simple dialogue between myself and a shepherd, who would retell the Christmas story while holding a little lamb. So, I called a local farm and made all the arrangements. At a designated time, after worship had begun, the farmer would bring the lamb to the church parking lot and my shepherd, Sam, would pick up the lamb and make his entrance. It was going to cost $100 for the use of the lamb, which I paid for out of my own pocket as a gift to the kids. I couldn’t wait to see the excitement in their faces and knew they would remember this for the rest of their lives.

The church was packed. Candles in glass globes lined the pews. Poinsettias and lit trees decorated the chancel. It was a magical Christmas Eve. And then the moment came. I invited the children to come forward for the message and they surrounded me on the steps in front of the altar. I engaged them in some friendly banter so that the shepherd could make an entrance and interrupt us. Well, we bantered and bantered and bantered and I didn’t see the shepherd at the back of the church. Where was he? It became comical as I rambled on and the adults realized I was expecting someone who wasn’t appearing.

Finally, I saw Sam making his way down the hallway at the back of the church. He was walking backwards and struggling. I gave him his cue and he was still struggling to move. What on earth? Then I saw the problem. This wasn’t a lamb. This was a full-grown, big ol’ fluffy sheep. And he wasn’t happy. He had his legs tucked up under him so that he was this giant fuzz ball on the floor. A very heavy one at that. And Sam was dragging him with a leash.

All of a sudden, the sheep was on his feet. He and Sam started down the center aisle and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking everything was going to be okay. I thought wrong. When the sheep saw the candles and the people, he tried to run away. He leapt up into the air, flipped over and landed on his back. Then, scrambling to his feet, he did it again. Again and again as Sam pulled him down the aisle, the sheep did acrobatics and I held my breath. Each time he did this the kids squealed with delight. And, of course, that made the sheep flip out even more. I kept praying, “God, please don’t let that sheep break its neck and die here right in front of all these kids on Christmas Eve and I promise I’ll never do anything this stupid again.”

By the time they had reached the front of the church, I don’t know who was more frazzled, Sam or the sheep. Both of them had the same terrified look in their eyes. When I launched into the dialogue we had worked on, Sam just stared at me. He couldn’t speak. So, I worked both sides of the story as he stood there with his mouth open, nodding every so often. It didn’t matter what I said anyway. No one was listening. They were all watching the sheep to see what crazy thing he’d do next.

You probably know where this is going, because you’re a lot smarter than I was. The sheep left a Christmas present for us on the rug, right there in front of God and everybody. The kids thought this was the funniest thing they had ever seen. And I knew that it was time to wrap this up before he did it again. We had to get this wooly bag of shit out of church and send him back to the farm where he belonged.

Sam went to make his exit. But the sheep had other ideas. He tucked all four legs up under himself and made like a footstool. (A legless footstool.) Sam slid the stubborn animal down the aisle, to the delight of all who were present. Kids were squealing and adults were howling. Some had tears streaming down their cheeks. The only one who failed to see the humor in this was poor, dazed Sam.

It turned out to be a moment none of those children will ever forget. But not for the reasons I had hoped. I’ll never forget it either. It will probably be one of those scenes that flashes before my eyes on my deathbed. As I think of it tonight, I still chuckle.

And what did I learn from this? Well, never bring farm animals into church, of course. Since that night I haven’t. And I won’t ever again. Trust me. There will be no farm animals at Holy Trinity in Charlotte tonight.

But, I also learned that no special effects are necessary at Christmas. The story itself is enough. That’s why we will gather together tonight. To hear the story again. It’s more than enough.

Merry Christmas y'all!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Need a light?

Why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25? The Bible doesn’t give us a date for the event, but from what we do know, it was more likely that it occurred in the spring than the winter. For one thing, if shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, it had to be lambing time, which was in the spring. In the wintertime, sheep weren’t watched out in the fields; they were kept in corrals.

For the first 300 years of the Christian church, nobody celebrated Christmas. But sometime in the fourth century, Christian leaders became concerned about a popular Roman festival. It celebrated the winter solstice, during the darkest time of the year, when the hours of sunlight began to increase again and light was victorious over darkness. In an effort to compete with the sun worshippers, Christmas was born.

This worked out perfectly because, really, there is no better time to celebrate the light of Christ shining in our world than in the bleak midwinter. Our days have grown shorter. We know what it’s like to live in darkness, literally. And we’re reminded of what it means to live in darkness figuratively, as well.

At Christmas we see the holy family in the stable, Mary exhausted, but radiant; the breath of the animals visible in the frosty night air. We hear the lowing of the cattle and the rustling of the straw. And we gaze at the long-expected child in the manger knowing that this isn’t just the stuff children’s Christmas pageants are made of.

Bethlehem was full of visitors that night because a power-hungry politician far away had decided to take a census as a way to establish how many people there were who could be taxed. In this case, the people weren’t counted where they lived; they were sent back to their ancestral hometowns. Beneath the sweet, tender birth story runs a tale of oppression, of a people at the mercy of a tyrant, a people enslaved by conquerors. We can dress it up with tinsel, with poinsettias, shining stars and angels, but it is a story of oppression and vulnerability, of injustice with little mercy.

The journey to Bethlehem, the risky birth in a barn, the flight into Egypt – tell us of the kind of world Jesus was born into: a world of violence, fear, and misery. Christ entered into a world of darkness.

Isaiah’s words ring true: “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light” (9:2a). The contrast of light and darkness existing side-by-side in the days leading up to Christmas is stark. While we are following the light of a star hovering over Bethlehem, we also are walking through the darkest days of the year. While we journey toward beauty and wonder, we carry the deaths of loved ones within us and grief grips our hearts. While we celebrate this special family holiday, we are painfully aware of the brokenness within our own families. While children experience excitement that they can’t contain, we worry about paying the bills so they can have a Christmas that doesn’t disappoint them. While we say the word merry over and over, we are bogged down with depression that can’t be drowned with glass after glass of Christmas cheer. While we toast one another’s good health, we know those who carry the burden of serious illness. Both darkness and light are a part of our world.

In his gospel, John writes: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). Notice what these words don’t say. They don’t say that the light comes into the world and destroys the darkness. That might be what we’d like to hear, but that’s not the way it works. Instead, the light comes into the world, and the darkness doesn’t snuff it out.

The darkness continues to be with us. In the 2,000 years since the birth of Christ, there is no less pain, no less meanness in the human spirit, no less heartache. The light hasn’t changed that. But the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness can’t overcome it.

Have you ever shone a light in the darkness and tried to put it out by adding more darkness? It doesn’t work. In fact, the darker it gets, the more brightly the light shines.

The point of Christmas is that God climbs into the darkest places to be with us. And because God is with us, because God’s light shines in the darkness of this world, including our own personal darkness, we have reason to celebrate.

People who walk in darkness: May you know hope, peace and joy this Christmas as you behold the light no darkness can overcome. It’s the light of God’s love shining through his son Jesus.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mary's "yes"

The incarnation was a collaborative effort. It was, appropriately, something that God and a human being decided to do together. That human being was a young woman named Mary. Now, God was the one with the plan. But he had to depend upon Mary’s agreement or it would have remained nothing more than an idea.

There are some who have suggested that maybe Mary wasn’t the first woman the angel visited on God’s behalf. Maybe Gabriel had presented this preposterous plan to other young women, searching for the right one. And maybe, Mary was just the first one to say “yes.” Of course, that would also make her the right one.

Mary had a choice. God didn’t just force his will on her. She had something to say about it. Because that’s the way God does things with us human beings. God doesn’t force us to say “yes” to him. If he just wanted us to do what he wants us to do, he might coerce us, or manipulate us, or trick us into doing it. But God wants more from us than just to get us to do what he wants us to do. Mainly, what God wants is for us to love him. And the only way to be loved by another is by giving that person the freedom of choice. So, Mary had a choice. She could have said “no” just as easily as she said “yes.”

Mary said “yes.” Actually, her words were, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” She heard God’s plan, and she said, “Count me in.” The incarnation became possible because Mary decided that God’s will would become her will, too.

Now, I would guess that not many of us have been visited by an angel and told what God wants for our lives. And we might like to believe that if Gabriel did show up on our doorstep, we’d be all about saying “yes” to God. I’d sure like to believe that about myself. But it doesn’t take an angel delivering a message from God for us to know what God’s will is for our lives. That’s actually pretty clear. No, God may not tell us if we should buy the new car we’ve been eyeing, or what our major should be in college, or whether we should go to see a movie on Christmas Day. But in the scriptures God is pretty clear about telling us how it’s his will that we love him above everything else in our lives. And God tells us that the way we love God above everything else in our lives is by loving other people. That’s no great mystery. As God’s children, we pretty much know what his will is for our lives. We may not know the particulars about today, but we have a good idea about the direction God wants our lives to go. Is that something we can say “yes” to?

Many people will point to Mary as the poster child for what it means to surrender yourself to God. But I wonder if that’s really the way it happened for Mary. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the idea of surrender. I’m not sure that’s what God wants of us -- that we surrender ourselves to him. Surrender seems to be the language of war to me. You don’t surrender to a loved one; you surrender to an enemy. And when you surrender, you give up a big piece of yourself. In fact, I think that a lot of people who try to surrender themselves to God have built up resentment toward God because of all they feel they’ve been required to give up to follow him. How can you love someone whom you grow to resent like that?

That’s why I can’t see surrender as Mary’s solution to God’s proposal. Her response wasn’t an act of surrender, but it was an act of love. And that’s the response God wants of us as well. God doesn’t hold us captive to his wishes. He doesn’t demand that we submit to his will for our lives. He gives us the freedom to make our own choices. That means we can say “yes” or we can say “no.” The only way to truly say “yes” to God is the way that Mary said it. It’s a “yes” born out of a relationship with God that’s grounded in love.

God wants us to love him so much that we want for ourselves what he wants for us; he wants us to love him in such a way that his will and our will become the same. He doesn’t want to force us to do what he wants us to do. He just wants us to love him so much that we freely say “yes” to him. And he loves us so much that whether we say “yes” or “no”, he’s gonna keep on loving us anyway.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Popped in the nose by "God with us"

I met three friends for lunch today smack dab in the middle of uptown Charlotte. It was a restaurant I hadn’t been to before, so I wasn’t sure where it was. Of course, parking is always a challenge uptown, so when I got close to my destination and saw a parking garage, I went for it. It was the Bank of America garage, something I should have no trouble finding later, since the Bank of America building is the tallest in town.

To say that I tend to have difficulty finding my car in parking lots and garages is an understatement. I could write a lengthy book entitled, Cars I Have Lost and How They Eventually Found Me. Lately, I’ve been trying to overcome this challenge by taking careful mental notes of my whereabouts whenever I park in a parking lot or garage. Today I was on the sixth level and my parking spot was #681. (You should be impressed by the fact that I can still tell you that, seven hours later.) As I walked away from my car, I was confident that I would have no problem finding it when I returned from lunch.

Taking the elevator to what I thought was the ground level, I found myself in a long white hallway with no doors. Had I landed in the Twilight Zone? There was no one around and it took several attempts for me to figure out how to exit the building. When I emerged, I was all turned around and had no idea where I was. (In addition to losing cars in parking lots, I also have a long, sad history of being directionally challenged. Not a good combination.) After I approached a police officer and asked him which way to Tryon Street, he pointed his finger and I followed it up the sidewalk.

I wandered around for a while and stopped several people to ask directions before I finally found the Aria Tuscan Grille and joined my friends for a delightful lunch. Then it was time to leave. As it turned out, they also had parked in the Bank of America garage, so we walked over together. Imagine my dismay when I realized that there was more than one Bank of America garage and this wasn’t mine!

I didn’t know what to do. I walked over to the Starbucks and asked one of the employees, “Do you know anything about the parking garages here? Do you know where the Bank of America garages are?” Suffice it to say, she was no help. Someone else overheard my question and asked, “Do you know the number of your parking space?” Well, yes I did, but I explained to him that this wasn’t my problem. I could find my car if I knew which garage it was parked in. He stood there with a puzzled look on his face as I walked away.

So, I approached someone else, a young man who was getting a cup of coffee. He listened to me explain my predicament and said, “I understand. With these tall buildings, it’s very easy to get lost in this part of town.” I was relieved that someone else could appreciate my problem without a tone of judgment in his voice. I handed the young man my parking ticket and he examined it for a moment. “I know where this is,” he told me. And while I was waiting for directions that I probably wouldn’t be able to follow, he said the most amazing thing. “Come on,” I’ll take you there. “You mean you’ll walk with me?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. And that’s exactly what he did.

Along the way we chatted a bit about his job, what brought me uptown today, the restaurant where I had eaten. It was all quite lovely. Whoever his mother is, she should be very proud of her son. Actually, he did a lot for me today, too. It was a grace-filled moment for me. We never exchanged names. He was just some unknown person who helped me find my way.

There are a lot of people God has sent into my life like that, some known and some unknown. People who seem to show up at just the right time, when I feel lost and something of a hopeless mess. Those are the times when the message of Christmas sneaks up on me and pops me in the nose. It’s a face-to-face encounter with the reality of “God with us.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Doing Nothing for Christmas

This year I’m preparing myself for Christmas by doing something I’ve never done before. It’s so radical for me that it’s taking everything within me to accomplish it. I’m pushing myself every step of the way. What am I doing? Nothing.

Through the years, I’ve been known to go a bit overboard at Christmastime, particularly with my decorating. When my kids were still living with me, every year I challenged myself to have a tree in our home more magnificent than the one the year before. When the Christmas tree farm opened at the crack of dawn on the day after Thanksgiving, I always had to be the first person through the gate. My snow-boots stomped through the rows of trees until I found the perfect blue spruce and tagged it. It had to be just big enough so that the tip would touch the peak of our 14 foot cathedral ceiling. When the time came to pick the tree up, I’d have to send someone with a truck. As we forced it through the front door, it always reminded me of the classic scene where Piglet is trying to shove a much-too-large Winnie the Pooh through a much-too-small window. One of my kids would invariably say, “It’s not gonna fit”, and I would insist that it had to. After it was up and decorated, and the other members of my family were barely speaking to me, it was always worth the effort when the kids’ friends would come into the house and gasp as they looked upon the perfect Christmas tree and asked, “Is that thing real?”

My Christmas decorations feature a Santa Claus collection that has grown over the years. It includes well over 50 versions of the jolly old elf. From an inch to three feet tall, he is black/white/brown. He’s playing golf, riding a motorcycle, swinging a lasso, blowing into the flute, making bubbles, painting toys… you name it.

Then there are the sentimental items that I can’t bear to part with: the ornaments made by my kids when they were in school, the stockings crocheted by my mom with Gretchen and Ben sewn into them, the handmade nativity scene given to me by a dear saint in my first parish.

It all means so much to me, from the greenery and candles on the mantel to the festive welcome mat at the wreath-decked door. And yet, this year I’ve decided that I’m not going to do any of it. And I’m discovering that it’s one of the hardest things I’ve never done.

I wish I could say that my motivation has been deeply spiritual, but that’s really not the case. It’s a practical matter. Over the past month I have been totally consumed with moving my nest from one location in Charlotte to another. I sorted and threw things away, and hauled carloads to Goodwill. I scrounged in dumpsters and collected cardboard boxes, and I packed. I cleaned furiously at my old home, and then I cleaned even more furiously at my new home. I sliced open boxes and unpacked and arranged stuff and then rearranged it and worked myself ragged finding a place for everything. Now, the last thing I want to do is haul out all the Christmas decorations and disrupt my home. The dust hasn’t settled from the move yet. I just don’t have the energy for it. So I made the decision that the practical thing is to forego Christmas decorations this year.

Every day I’m wondering if I’m going to break down and decorate. Maybe just a little. But I know what will happen if I start; I won’t be able to stop. As Christmas gets closer, I don’t know if I’ll be able to not do it. But what started out as a practical decision has become something more than that for me. As I find myself resisting the whole idea of not decorating, I’ve questioned why this is so darn important to me. Why is my celebration of Christmas so tied up in the activity of decorating and getting everything just right -- creating a setting for the perfect Christmas? My preoccupation with the window dressing of the season has shown me that this actually is a spiritual issue for me after all. And so now I’m more determined than ever to do nothing in preparation for Christmas. Nothing on the outside, that is. Instead, I’m focusing my energy on the inside. As long as I’m not decorating, I’ve decided to refrain from other activities as well, such as baking, and shopping.

What would it be like if you took all the time that you spend scurrying about doing all the stuff you just have to do before Christmas gets here and did none of it, but instead spent that time praying, reading scripture, serving those in need? I’ve always wondered that for myself, and this year I intend to find out.

Will Christmas still happen for me? I know that I definitely won’t be finding it under a tree or in dozens of Santa faces smiling at me on Christmas morning. But I have no doubt it will happen. I’ll find it the same place I always do. In my heart.