Friday, December 25, 2009

The Rest of Christmas

Well after four Christmas Eve services I think I'll take some rest. So I may be blogging or not, we'll see. I came home last night after the 11:00 service and could not go to sleep. The momentum of Christmas surprised my tired self. So, I watched the movie, "Christmas Story." They play it over and over again for 24 hours so you can always just jump right into the story. Yea, he about shot his eye out...again.

And last night Jesus was born, again. It is the same story told over and over again every year. You can just "jump right into the story." Last night in the worship services I offered those who would listen the chance to "register" along with Joseph and Mary. I mentioned that the language I grew up on did not say that they went to Bethlehem to "register." They made the rough trip because, "A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be TAXED." It was a taxing experience for this homeless couple. They were not "registering" for a course but then the truth is they were registering for taxes or they would have ended up on the government's naughty list.

I then asked those crowded into the sanctuary...(it's always crowded on Christmas Eve you know)...if they were there to "register" or "audit" the evening. I offered all of us the chance to register and put our name not on the world's list where there is so much "no" but on God's list where we could become "the people we have been waiting for."

The Christmas story goes on and on and you can jump in anytime but it is meant not to be watched from a distance or audited. It is invitational and we need to "register." So I could not go to sleep. I stayed awake for a while...after "Christmas Story." I stayed awake with Joseph and Mary for a while. It was just me alone. The crowds were all back in their homes "with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads" or something like that.

It was a kind of nice moment. I asked myself if I wanted to register....again this jump into the help the baby do what he came to do...make a difference...change the world...offer God's yes in the face of all the "no." Joseph and Mary finally decided to get some rest. Even they had to have some Christmas you have some Christmas rest. And when the tree is down and the manger scene is once again in that box...remember....the story goes on and and I can jump right in anytime...
Bless you

Saturday, December 19, 2009

We Need a Little Christmas

I love listening to Christmas music and it's a good thing I do. The radio stations start playing Christmas music the month before Christmas and do not stop. How many times have you heard, "O We Need a little Christmas, right this very minute?" So how do we get what we need?

Each year we pull out manger scenes, decorate trees, buy presents, surf the channels looking for those Christmas specials, and long to "feel" something that we felt before. We need the sweetness of Tiny Tim blessing us with those innocent words, "God bless us everyone." We want the Grinch's small heart to grow three sizes. We long for the scene when Jimmy Stewart discovers that bump on his head and finds out each year how an angel gets his wings. And we count the number of years we've heard the news of a dreaded decree that "went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled."

We still "need a little Christmas." This week I found out why "again." I spent the night at our church's Room in the Inn ministry with 12 guys who were "on the street." They all had stories and most of them were looking for jobs that they could not find. One fella asked me if he could take some extra bananas that were on the table for breakfast the next morning. "These could come in handy," he said. He told me the night before that he used to "be in real estate."

Yesterday I visited the jail to see someone who was locked up for doing some really bad stuff. A few days before I listened to the hopes of a young mother struggling with cancer and watched a 7 year old child struggling with that same disease sing with the children's choir. And...I made the mistake of watching the evening news.

We need a little Christmas. Why do we love and need that decree for Caesar Augustus each year? It is because the "good news" came in the midst of the bad news. There was a big time "recession" going on in the land when the government announced yet another taxation. A young teenager named Mary barely escaped being stoned to death for adultery only because of the kindness and hope of a man named Joseph who was willing to step out in faith and give Mary's baby a last name.

And yes, "there was no room in the inn" for a homeless couple who probably wondered what in the world God was doing if they could not even find a descent place for the child to be born. We need a little Christmas because the original story tells us of a God who comes in the midst of all the darkness and the questions. This is not a dramatic presentation with stage lights and a church choir in the background. This is the light shinning in the darkness reminding us of the darkness and the hope that the darkness cannot overcome the light.

O yes, we need a little Christmas right this very minute. As a Christmas card I received years ago stated, "Unto you this day is born a savior....but it was night." May the star of Bethlehem shine into your darkness this year. May you have what is there to receive: a little Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Identity Crisis

Each year on the Sunday before Christmas I have an "identity crisis." Being one who is supposed to proclaim the good news I have a bit of a problem at Christmas time. What can be said about the Christmas story that has not already been said? Having a desire to do something that needs to be special and unique I come to a kind of crisis. What shall I do?

So, I decided years ago to simply tell the story. I do this by taking on the identity of someone "in" the story. I call it my Christmas monologue. The problem is that after I've been at a church for a few years all the characters are "used up." I've been the innkeeper, a shepherd, a wise man, Herod, Joseph, and even a stranger who finds himself as a guest in the inn on that fateful night. So, what was I to do this year?

I pondered the story. Was anyone else there? Then it hit me, those famous words that we have all heard from the days of childhood and bathrobed shepherds accompanied by wise men carrying gifts that look strangely like they were taken from somebody's jewelry cabinet: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered." Alas, someone had to register them. So this year I will be a "census taker in Bethlehem," which of course is simply another version of a dreaded "tax collector."

I just finished creating him. He is a lonely man who like all "characters" whom we think to be "bad" has a story. This census taker happens upon that scene in the stable and gets caught up in the "story." He gets to "see" Christmas and his life is changed forever.

That is the way the story goes you know. It is not a story that is to be observed from a distance but one that invites the hearer to come close and step into the story. It is meant to be our story. God comes close in the form of Emmanuel...God with us.

The best way I can convey this truth to all of you who are reading this is to share what happened the very first time I did one of these characters. It was years ago and I was the innkeeper. When I got to the part of the story when the innkeeper went to the door he simply said this: "I went to the door to let some of the cool night air in. I had long sense quit answering the many knocks at my door because I had no more room. I had listened to every story and lie you could imagine from people trying to get me to find some room. I was tired of hearing them so I'm not sure why I opened the door late that night except to get some fresh air...There they were...shabby looking couple. The woman was leaning over the neck of what looked like a very tired burro. Then the man said what was unbelievable, 'Sir, do you have some room? My wife is about to have a baby?' Well I thought I had heard it all. Did this man think I was supposed to believe that he would take his wife out on a night like this if she was about to have a baby? Was I supposed to believe a story like that?"

...Then before the innkeeper could say the next words something happened. 4 year old Teddy Gellar was on the back row of the crowded sanctuary. His mother later told me he was standing on the pew bending forward, spell bound by the innkeeper's tale. When he heard the innkeeper say, "Do you expect me to believe a story like that?" Teddy shouted out across the room, "Yes!"

For a moment there was silence. The innkeeper froze. Then there was a solitary laugh. Then the innkeeper simply shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "What do I do now?" Then the magic happened. The laughter took over the room like a tide that had come in and swallowed us all.

Teddy Gellar told the story with one word: "Yes." O, the innkeeper regained his composure and finished the monologue but he and everyone else knew that it was a child who understood that in the face of all the world's "no" God had said "yes."

I've been offering my identity crisis monologues ever since that Christmas long ago. I've been many characters and I've re-written all of them several times, but none will be able to compare with the day that an innkeeper heard a child's voice from out of the dark....Yes, Teddy I believe it.

May you hear the story afresh this year. Stop, look, and listen and you too will hear in the midst of wars, recessions, and a world framed in terror the one word that matters...the "yes" that comes from a stable.

Merry Christmas

Friday, December 11, 2009

Is This It?

Anybody out there old enough to remember when it was a big deal to ride around and look at Christmas lights? Why was it a big deal? Well, there were not as many Christmas specials on TV for one thing. Why...because TV had not been around long enough to make the specials.

So instead of sitting with our heads in a box we had to go out and make something "special." I suppose more people had time on their hands so they would decorate their porches and trees and roofs with all sorts of lights. Not as many people do that, do they? Or do I simply not pay enough attention. Or if I am paying attention am I so overstimulated with the light shows of culture that it simply does not impress me anymore?

Why ride around when you can see it all from the comfort of your home on HD? Well first of all we did it as a family. We actually talked about the lights instead of simply watching them. I remember if all went well we ended up at Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone. That was special.

I remember at the small rural church that I served years ago the tradition was to stuff brown paper bags on a certain Saturday afternoon with nuts, an orange, an apple, and an assortment of small candies. These were called "pokes." The kids would grab them the next Sunday afternoon and were underwhelmed to say the least. These pokes were no longer special to children who did not much like the fruit and were used to having all the candy their stomachs could handle most any time they wanted it.

But the adults wanted to do it because they could remember the days when pokes were special. They still had stories lining their memory chest of their parents who reminded them that a poke was all they got for Christmas. It was special. So I joined in this tradition of remembering the ghosts of Christmas past. In a day when video games would soon relegate coloring books to the attic these adults at least felt the need to nod to the simple days of the past.

Which brings me to what the dear woman said the other evening at the Live Nativity scene. The shepherds were taking their places, the wise men were making their way toward the stable, and Mary and Joseph were now looking down at the manger. I was getting ready to walk over to the microphone and read the Christmas story for the first time that evening when the woman asked me, "Is this it?" "What do you mean, " I responded? "Well is this it or is there something else?"

I felt the need to tell her that I was getting ready to read the story and that yes there would be some dramatic presentations later and some music. For this passing observer, however, something needed to "happen." Simply witnessing the scene and the characters was not enough.

The children that night, however, seemed captivated by simply seeing the scene. Some of them would come up and stare at a "real" Mary and Joseph and then they would stand over the manger looking at baby Jesus. None of the children asked if "anything was going to happen." It already had...

So tonight I think I'll drive around and look at some Christmas lights. I might even go find a Dairy Queen. And as I taste that soft serve I will remember how special small things can be and that the reason for the lights is that something indeed "did happen."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas: God's Bandwidth

Well I got all excited when I was pondering what the word, "Emmanuel" means because I thought of a technology expression that seemed to go with this biblical title. "Emmanuel" means, "God with us." It is the stuff of Christmas carols and angel announcements. "His name shall be called Emmanuel."

So I thought I had this wonderful word that I overheard that has to do with computer stuff called, "band-with." This is great. Is that not what God does in that manger. God "bands with" us....Emmanuel...get it? Then I found out that the word is not "band-with" it's "bandwidth." Shucks, my image comes to speak.

But alas the meaning of the word "bandwidth" has to do with the amount of data that can be handled in a certain amount of time. It is kind of like pipes and water. The bigger the pipe the more water can go through and the faster the water can get to its intended destination.

So, I'm back with the image. Emmanuel, God's bandwidth. God decided that we did not have enough bandwidth so the message was simply "not getting through." God tried laws, prophets, and all sorts of signs like floods and rainbows but we thick headed children simply did not get God expanded the bandwidth. The way God did it, however, really surprised most folks. How could so much information come in such a small package? How could the heart of God be contained in a manger?

Just goes to show you that when it comes to God bandwidth gets turned upside down. God becomes flesh, the transfer of information is instant, but the method is quite small.

Emmanuel, God with us...God is still trying to get through to us. The information highway is filled with all sorts of data but in the midst of all the "bits" and gigabytes...whatever they are... there comes again this year the "good news of great joy to all people...unto you is born a savior...Emmanuel"...God gets through to us. In the midst of all the bad news and the horror that seems not to go away God gets through. We may run out of bandwidth and things can slow down or get clogged up but God will not be denied. It seems that God has all the bandwidth in the world. And you thought the Internet was big.

Advent blessings

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wounded Tigers, Party Crashers, and a Manger

"On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a Tiger who hit a tree. On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me a pair of White House party crash-ers." So would go the new version of that familiar song if you believed what was really "the news" for our day. Why are we an obsessed, celebrity driven culture? What is the need behind us wanting to have heroes who remain unblemished while possessing the power to capture our imaginations? Why do we care that some flashy couple duped the not so secret service?

I'm not really sure why? It is almost like we need to "go back to go" and start over. No, life is not a Monopoly game but we sure could use a new deck of cards and a transformed set of "pieces" to move about our pilgrimage toward wherever it is we seem to be going so fast.

For those who want to not take the express route to Christmas there is that "road less traveled." At the fork in the road is a crusty old fella with locusts in his teeth and the smell of honey on his breath. The centuries call him John the Baptist. He sounds like the alter-ego of Santa Claus as he seems to be making a list and checking it more than twice while he screams out every year in his wilderness to "repent."

The word "repent" has a bad rap. It's been screamed out by too many "modern" would be prophets as a means to "scare the hell" out of people so that they would straighten up and fly right before it is "everlastingly too late"...or something like that. The word actually means to "stop, look, and listen...and then go in a different direction." See there...that sounds more like a "stop sign" on the road rather than a hammer with which to hit people up side of the head.

My stop sign happened last night at our church's live Nativity. Our youngest daughter signed up to be Mary. I kidded her (and I probably should not have...see I've been jaundiced by our culture too) about her role asking if it was a way of doing penance for those wild and crazy days of her youth. She just smiled at me. In that smile I saw a bit of Mary and not just Amanda.

What really got my attention were the children who stood around the manger. They were truly fascinated. They wanted to touch the baby. No, it was not a "real" baby but somehow that did not matter. To them the scene was real. Perhaps they knew just enough of the story to want to see for themselves. Something real sure was happening at that manger.

So, I think I need to repent. I'm tired of news about wounded Tigers and party crashers. I need the "good news" that comes in the wilderness. I want what those children seemed to want. What if we can hear the old story and let it come alive for us? What if we can still help that baby transform this crazy world and this upside-down culture?

That was "really" my daughter up there. Those children "really" were captivated by the story. The news on the talking box is not the reality we need. I walked away from the manger and thought to myself, "Come into my heart Lord Jesus...Come in today...come in to stay...come into my heart Lord Jesus."

Blessed Advent to you,

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Blue Lights and Open Arms

What is it about the Christmas season that offers us the invitation to walk through the back door of life and remember the past? Is it the longing that we have as we get older to not completely lose the part of childhood that still lives in us?

Why do people watch,"It's a Wonderful Life" over and over again? Why does Boris Karloff's voice echoing over the years telling us that the "the Grinch hated the whole Christmas season" make us smile...over and over again?

My hair disappearing, my jogging time getting slower and slower, and my inability to really touch my toes makes getting lost on "memory lane" at Christmas even more appealing. So I remember traveling by train up to the strange land of North Carolina when I was six. We moved three times that year as my father changed jobs only to "land" one up in the far least it seemed like the far country to a child in Biloxi Mississippi.

Dad came up early to "set up house." Mom and I arrived late one foggy night. As I looked out the window all I could see was a solitary figure standing under a dim lamp near the door of the train station. I let go of my mother's hand and ran toward the figure. My mom screamed for me to stop. Who knew if this silhouette was indeed my father? All I knew was that I needed him to be.

As I ran I hesitated for a moment. Maybe this dark figure was not the one who had gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Maybe I was running toward Jack the Ripper. Then the figure slowly lifted both of his hands in a sculpture like pose. I broke from my frozen stance and ran into the enveloping arms of my father.

He drove us to some little brick house with the fog still holding us. We were refugees and the fog seemed to protect us from all that would seem strange. As I walked toward the new "home" I opened the door to see a decorated Christmas tree filled with large blue lights. I shall never forget the sight of that tree. I had never seen a tree with only blue lights. It was so beautiful. In today's standards it would seem rather dull and unimpressive, but to a child who had no idea what the future held in this strange land, it was a sign that someone had prepared Christmas. Christmas would happen in the new place.

I wish for you some special memories this season. You may have to reach back and push away some of the sad recollections that get in the way. So do. Find a place of blue lights for you. For you see, Christmas is about another "father" who prepared the way on a still night. It all happened because of a world that was in need of some good news. It seems this world of ours, shrouded in the deep mist of a wonder, was asking questions that sounded like, "Is someone really waiting for us out there?"

Yes, someone was waiting. Yes, someone is waiting. If it takes reaching back to childhood days when we all needed the reassurance that someone would make a place ready for us, then do it. And if you know of someone out there who is still making memories that need someone like you to help make those memories precious, then give the present of making sure they have something to hold you and your caring.

We have a God who understands blue lights and open arms....
Bless you