Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas Eve Sermon

Said the night wind to the little lamb:
Do you see what I see? Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see? A star, a star
Dancing in the night, With a tail as big as a kite: With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear? Ringing through the sky shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear? A song, a song
High above the tree, With a voice as big as the sea : With a voice as big as the sea

Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear?

This Christmas season, my son has become hooked on the movie, "The Polar Express." He asks to watch it every day, and he wants to watch it over and over and over. I think the combination of a train, Christmas, and Santa Claus is a bit overwhelming to him, and it has gotten to the point where the entire family, and I mean all of us can quote parts of this movie verbatim.

You might think I have grown tired of watching the movie or listening to it as my kids watch it in the car, but I haven’t. In fact, I love this movie because even though it focuses on Santa Claus, it’s deeper focus is on faith.

One of the most poignant, if not the most poignant scene in the movie comes toward the end. A little boy who is riding the Polar Express is a doubter. He has reached the age where he no longer believes Santa Claus is real or that he lives at the North Pole or that Santa brings gifts at Christmas. He wants to believe, but his mind won’t quite let him get there. Instead, he wants to live by the adage, "Seeing is believing."

All along the Polar Express’ journey, things happen that point to the existence of Santa, but despite this, the little boy does not believe. Even during the most poignant scene in the movie.

At this point, the little boy has survived numerous adventures to stand at the North Pole. Elves are all over the place singing "You better watch out..." A giant Christmas tree towers above everything. A sleigh is loaded with a mountain of presents contained in a humongous bag. Reindeer are attached to the sleigh bounding up and down as a large set of doors open, and Santa begins making his way to the sleigh.

The little boy stands in the crowd of elves and moves side to side trying to get a glimpse of Santa. No matter which way he moves, he cannot see. He can see some vague image walking through everyone, but he cannot see with clarity. He just can’t see Santa.

At this point, the music slows, and the camera pans to Santa’s sleigh. The reindeer buck and a single, Christmas bell comes off their reigns. It bounds through the crowd and falls at the boy’s feet. Others have spoken of how wonderful these bells sound, but this little boy has never heard them. He reaches out and picks up the bell. He holds it up to his ear and shakes it.


He shakes it again. Nothing.

He can’t hear the bells. He can’t see Santa.

He closes his eyes. He tightly squeezes the bell. He says, "O.K." Time stops.

Then he utters, "I believe. I believe."

All is silent.

The boy opens his eyes, and holds the bell up. He shakes it.

And. It. Rings.

For the first time, he can hear the bell!

He looks at the bell, and in its reflection, he sees Santa.

"What did you say?" Santa asks.

The boy turns and comes face to face with the one he doubted. He comes face to face with the one he didn’t believe existed. He comes face to face with Santa.

"I believe," he replies once again.

This little boy could not see. This little boy could not hear until, until he believed.

On this night, we have come to gather to hear a most marvelous story. It is a story about the birth of a little baby in a manger in a small town in a small country half a world away. For those who just give it a cursory read, it is a myth–a good story about a child’s birth where angels sang and shepherds came to witness. For those who view it as such, it is nothing more than pages of literature to be studied and appreciated as insight into a culture which was long ago and far away. It’s nothing more than that. It can be accepted or discarded at one’s choice.

But this story becomes so much more for those who believe. The story becomes much more meaningful, much more heart warming, much more full of joy and peace. For to those who believe, they see no myth. They see reality. They see the arrival of their Lord and Savior. The angels are not mythical beings, but they are messengers from heaven. The manger is not a feed trough, but it is the throne of the new born king. The stable is not a shelter for animals and weary travelers, but it is the finest of beginnings as the Father’s Son enters the world to redeem and save it. This scene is transformed into something holy and reverent for those who utter the words, "I believe."

Said the shepard boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know? In your palace wall mighty king.
Do you know what I know? A child, a child
Shivers in the cold: Let us bring him silver and gold; Let us bring him silver and gold

And for those who believe, this story has an amazing impact on our lives; for not only to we see this story differently. We view life differently. In a world governed by greed and the urge to take care of one’s self, we set a different standard. We believe we are called to make a difference in the world around us. We look at our lives, at our abilities, at our bank accounts, and we do not see things meant to satisfy us–instead we see our gifts, our talents, our abilities, indeed our silver and gold as gifts for the King of kings. We know when we give to food pantries, to charity, buy presents for those who have nothing, give to the church, we are not giving to these places alone. We know we are giving to God himself. We know we are making a difference. And we know this because we say, "I believe."

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say. Pray for peace people everywhere.
Listen to what I say. The child, the child, Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light. He will bring us goodness and light.

Our world is fraught with more than enough opportunities to stumble and fall. In recent years, this has become all to tangible for many. Job loss. Illness. Disease. Political fighting. Churches splitting. Riots. Drought. Divorce. Such things trouble us deeply. They bite into our hearts. They lead to worry. To fear. To despair.

But, "I believe."

I believe Christ came into this world, not to take all of these things away, but to restore hope. We know the birth of Jesus leads not to worldly glory and exaltation. Instead, we know the birth of Jesus leads to the cross–to Jesus’ act of sacrifice to redeem the world. Even in the midst of death, Jesus brought life. Jesus shines a light into the darkness of our world bringing goodness and light. You can see this. I know you can. All you need to do is utter the words, "I believe."


Friday, December 24, 2010

A Heart Wrenching Christmas Eve

As a pastor, you take the good with the bad.

Most of it is good.

Sometimes, it's really bad.

Like a church member getting divorce papers on Christmas Eve.

Merry Christmas.

Somehow, the "gift" doesn't seem too appropriate.  Pretty contrary to what Christmas is supposed to be about.  Everyone talks about spending time with family and friends for the holidays.  But what when a family is tearing apart? 

It's a stark contrast to what the season is "supposed" to be about.  Peace on earth and goodwill toward men.  Try telling that to this member that I just spent the last 45 minutes with.

Is there good news for this person?  Is there a positive spin to put on with a person who is looking at the disintegration of something that so much time and energy was put into?  Not hardly.  Words fail to ease the pain, the frustration, the depression.

I sit next to this person, and my heart beats slower.  Not fifty feet away, my mom and dad, my sister, niece and nephew, my wife and children are sitting down to enjoy a Christmas Eve lunch.  Joy abounds, and my heart is being wrenched by a terribly sad story.

And as I sit there, I have to remind myself of the purpose of Christmas.  I have to remind myself that Jesus came into this broken, messed up world to bring redemption.  I have to remind myself that Christmas is a precursor to Easter.

If all we had to celebrate in our faith was the arrival of the Messiah, it would ring hollow in such situations.  But the birth of Jesus was never and is not the most important event of the Christian faith.  The death and resurrection of Jesus is.  It is this event which shows the extent of how God relates to humanity.  God is willing to become part of humanity, suffer with us, and die.  And then the marvelous news is revealed to humankind: death is not the end.  Suffering is not the end.  Pain and frustration and broken families are not the end.  Hope will have the last word as all creation is restored.

This is the only kind of news that can have any impact to someone who is hurting and hurting badly.  If Christmas is only about presents and spending time with family and friends, there is no way this person I sat with today could have a pleasant one.  But if this person can see past the pain and grief and remember what God is doing--remember that God is entering into our brokenness to redeem it, then it might, just might be possible for this person to have a Merry Christmas.

I know my prayers will ask for just such a thing.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

What Makes Christmas?

I believe we all have certain things that we do which "make" Christmas.

As a child, it was walking into our living room on Christmas morning to see the gifts and stockings then traveling to Grandma and Grandpa's house for a meal and more presents.

As time passed it was Christmas Eve dinner with my immediate family, reading the Christmas story from Luke 2 before we opened gifts and then going to church. 

A few short years, it was midnight worship that "made" Christmas.

Now, I am an ordained pastor.  I've got three children.  I can see what "makes" Christmas for them, and it's heartwarming to see their excitement and joy during this time of year.  But, even as I watch my children and their joy, it doesn't "make" Christmas for me. 

For me, I have to have Christmas Eve worship.  I simply cannot do without it.  It "makes" Christmas.

There is a different air about Christmas Eve worship.  People seem to walk into church with a different attitude.  They seem to know something is different about this night.  I seem to know something is different about this night.

Greetings seem to have a warmth about them.

Troubles are momentarily forgotten.

We enter the worship space, and the world is closed off.

Hatred is put to pasture.

Griefs are laid to rest.

The world is shut away as worship begins.

Children call and cry.  No one objects.  This is the night of a child's birth.  Their noise reminds us of this.

There's a little more volume in the singing.

My sermon usually has a little more "oomph" to it.

Folks reverently come forward to receive the Sacrament.

And the excitement builds as we prepare for the lighting of the candles to sing "Silent Night."

I begin reading John 1, "In the beginning was the Word...the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

The Sanctuary is filled with a holy light.  The congregation is illuminated with a holy glow.  The saints in heaven and on earth lift their voices and sing of the birth of Jesus.  "Christ the Savior is born!  Christ the Savior is born!"

Candles are extinguished, the lights come on, and we burst forth with "Joy to the World!"

Christmas is here. 

I know others have different things that "make" Christmas for them.  I do not begrudge them one bit.  Each thing makes the day and celebration special. 

But I have to worship.  Nothing else comes close.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The 12 Days of Christmas

I find it fascinating that some folks actually believe we are right in the midst of the 12 days of Christmas.

Apparently, the church's influence in the world is still there, but it's a little warped.

The 12 days of Christmas start on Christmas day.  They run until January 6th: Epiphany.

For all who are concerned about keeping Christ in Christmas, please remember this, and please don't get offended if I wish you a Merry Christmas right up until January 6th.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Excitement Builds

I have often marveled at how my children refuse to get out of bed on a school day and yet find it possible to arise at ten minutes til six on Saturday and now during the Christmas break.  Just when I think it will be possible for my wife and I to get a few minutes more of sleep....

Oh well, it's not the first time I've missed predicting things.

I really shouldn't be surprised at this phenomenon, at least during this time of year.  I know my children are excited.

My girls see Christmas presents being brought in the house as we receive them by mail and grandparents bring them by ahead of time. 

My son discovered the movie "The Polar Express."  The combination of trains and Santa Claus is overwhelming, and he asks to watch it constantly.  (I will have the dialogue memorized very shortly.  Good thing too.  I'll be using some dialogue for my Christmas Eve sermon.)

The kids marvel at Christmas lights and beg to go looking at them.

We went to take our yearly photo with Santa, and we went to Bass Pro Shops.  They had a proverbial "Christmas Wonderland" complete with an electric train, coloring station, remote control cars, and a shooting gallery to occupy the kids.  Is it surprising that at least one of our children cried all the way to the car when we told him it was time to leave?

For children, this is truly a magical time of the year.  Everything is wondrous.  I can't wait to see their expressions at church this Friday as they get to hold candles as the congregation sings "Silent Night."  Their joy, their wonderment becomes infectious.  At least it is for me.

Of course, I don't focus as much on Santa Claus.  Or gifts.  Or Christmas lights.  I focus on the arrival of Jesus.  I reflect and meditate on the arrival of the one who promises peace in the middle of the storms.  I meditate on the angels who sang with heavenly voices.  I marvel at shepherds who leave their flocks to check out all they saw and heard.  I find a kindred spirit in Mary who pondered the news of these events in her heart.  I become excited knowing what it means that Jesus Christ is born this day.  My heart really does leap at the end of the Christmas Eve service when the lights come up and we sing "Joy to the World!"

Oh how I wish that everyone felt such excitement!  Oh how I wish everyone rejoiced at the good news!  Oh how I wish everyone could, for a few moments, experience the wonder, the awe, and the peace of Christmas without all the distractions.

What an exciting thing that might be.  I will live in hope.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Face of an Angel

Roughly three and a half years ago, I had one of the roughest days ever in my career as a pastor.

I was returning from a family vacation when I received a phone call about a little girl who is a member in my church.  She was in the hospital with an infection.  She started doing better, but all of a sudden she took a major turn downward.  She was being closely monitored throughout the day, and that afternoon, when she spit up blood, they immediately flew her to Memorial Herman Children's Hospital in Houston.  I rarely drink, but after traveling with the family all day and finishing up saying a prayer at this little girl's bedside as they wheeled her into intensive care, I took one at our local tavern.

Thus began a battle which has been going on until this day.  This little girl has had several victories and some setbacks.  It's been heartbreaking to watch the process.  In life, you expect older people to have troubles, face diseases, and gradually wear down, but it's not supposed to happen to children.  Kids aren't supposed to be happy, healthy and enjoying life one day and then unable to get out of bed and move in a matter of hours.  They aren't supposed to have diseases attack their brains and leave them unable to function fully.

It's not supposed to happen.

But it does.

At one juncture, this little girl's family lost quite a bit of hope.  A genetics doctor told them their child had a genetic condition, and she would never, ever recover.  They could expect her to go through several episodes before one became fatal.  She would never have full functioning.  Her mind would never progress.  They would have to prepare to take care of an invalid child until this condition finally claimed her life.

Thank goodness doctors are not always right.

This one missed.  The tests were wrong.

This little girl fooled everyone.  She began to heal.  Remarkably.  Her mind is a wonderful mind.  She can communicate with her eyes as she looks up and down.  She can respond with "Yes" and "No" answers.  A group of doctors examined her and took MRI's of her brain.  They concluded that her brain had healed remarkably well.  There was just one part which hadn't come back yet.  The part for motor control.  There was still too much scar tissue up there that prevented things from healing fully.  Yet...  Yet... there was a surgery which could be performed which could restore this process.  It hadn't been performed on someone under the age of seven, so the family would have to wait, but if they could endure, and if they would allow, and if the surgery were successful, then their little girl could possibly walk and run and play and talk and feed herself.  Hope surges!

This little girl is cute as a button.  Every time I see her, I talk to her and ask her how she is doing.  Every time I have seen her, she smiles an absolutely gorgeous smile.  Every time I see it, my heart is warmed.

This Sunday, I got to see that smile as big as I have ever seen it.

It was the Sunday of our Children's Christmas Program.  This little girl sat in the congregation as her brother walked side by side with me as we played the part of shepherds.  At the end of the program, I bolted out to greet people and to make sure every child in attendance received the traditional goody bags given at the Christmas Program.

This little girl came out being held by her dad.  I said, "Hi, Remington."  And she smiled that smile.  Then, I said, "This is for you," as I handed a bag toward her.

This little girl nearly stood up in her father's arms.  She had a burst of energy and excitement as she received this gift.  Her smile broadened as her enthusiasm shown through.

"So that's what it's like to see the face of an angel," I thought.  I was blessed to get a chance to see it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Not to be Overlooked...

Once a month, our congregation has a get together for retired folks called our "Senior Service."

It's specifically geared for folks who have a difficult time coming on Sunday morning.  We have a brief worship service with Holy Communion.  No one has to stand during the service.  All remain seated.  We provide a meal--usually a main course, and those attending bring side dishes and desserts.  Then, we play games and fellowship for much of the afternoon.

Yesterday, we had our Christmas service, singing Christmas carols and eating Turkey, dressing, and all the trimmings.

I stood in the "pulpit" and offered thanks for those who cooked including one of our congregation members who provided the dressing, and myself for cooking the turkey. 

It was only after I was in line getting my food that I realized a huge omission in my thanks.  Usually, I thank them every week, but for some reason, my brain just passed right by them on this day.  Two of our ladies of the church put in an awful lot of time and energy setting this service up. 

Not only do they get this service prepared, they head up the Altar Guild of the Congregation, and they coordinate meals when we have a funeral at the church.  They set up for the funerals and make sure the food is out as well.  One of these ladies is constantly heading into Katy to go to Sam's Club and purchase items for the church and church office.

And they would like to do more!

One day, I literally had to tell one of these ladies, "Don't do it!" when the Red Cross was in need of a shelter coordinator for the congregation.  Land's sakes, she already did and is doing enough.  She doesn't need another item of stress on her plate.

How could I forget to thank these two ladies.  They did a magnificent job setting up for this event (as they do all of them).   They decorated the tables with Christmas presents.  One of the gals literally wrapped a whole bunch of empty boxes for the decorations!  When they were placing them out the Monday before, they noted how the tables looked too blank, so they found some old plastic table cloths (green and red as expected) and cut runners to go down the tables.  They set all the places.  They prepared tea and coffee and egg nog--unleaded of course.  They welcomed guests as they arrived.  They helped get our Assisted Living Ladies to their places after the bus arrived.  They set up for communion.  All of these behind the scenes and little details, they had covered immaculately!

How could I forget them?

It's so darn easy to take for granted those who take care of the little details.  It's so darn easy to take for granted those who work day in and day out without asking much in reward.  These two ladies do this work because they love their Lord, they love their church, and they love serving others.

I know you two don't ask for it, but Shirley and Glenda: Thank you!  You are a couple of amazing ladies in an amazing group of people that is called the church in Cat Spring.  I am blessed to know you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Easy it is to Forget


I can't believe how quickly I forget.

Yesterday, I rambled on about Christian responsibility in discerning how much is enough and whose job it is to set that boundary.  I rambled on about Bernie Sanders and Glenn Beck.  I talked of how it is important for us as Christians to be good stewards.  I touched on the topic of Christian responsibility in paying taxes, but I felt like I couldn't give a solid answer as to what Congress should or shouldn't do about taxes and paying down the national debt.

I sat down yesterday afternoon and began reading the Augsburg Confession.  This document was written during the Reformation to help articulate the Lutheran belief to the Holy Roman Emperor.  It sets the standard for Lutheran belief and understanding--how the church functions--how it relates to government--the role of clergy and lay folks.  As I read, I came upon these words in Article 28:

Therefore, the two authorities, the spiritual and the temporal, are not to be mingled or confused, for the spiritual power has its commission to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments.  Hence it should not invade the function of the other, should not set up and depose kings, should not annul temporal laws or undermine obedience to government, should not make or prescribe to the temporal power laws concerning worldly matters.

Whoa!  That's a load right there. 

It's meaning is stark and clear.  It is not my job to tell the government how to govern.  It is not my job to figure out the tax code and process and advocate it one way or another from the pulpit or from my position as a clergy.  Neither is it the job of the church to do such a thing.  Our job is to preach the Word and administer the sacraments.  Hmmm.

This actually has some pretty startling implications for those of us who are Christian.  For instance, when governments decide it is unconstitutional for them to place a manger scene in the public square, how are we supposed to handle it?  According to the Lutheran confessions: let them take it away.  They cannot remove the manger from our hearts, and we, ourselves can take the Christmas story into the square.  (As we should anyway.)  If the government decides to implement universal health care, well, that's the government's choice.  Individual members of congregations can certainly advocate one way or another; however, the church itself should remain agnostic.  On the other hand, the church should be prepared to help those in need if they fall through the system's cracks.

In a very real way, the Lutheran understanding of the church is to form an alternate reality that functions within the realm of society--a reality that is not governed by politics, but is governed by the Word and the sacraments.  If the government decided to get rid of all social programs designed to help the poor and needy, there should be no worry if the church is functioning as it should.  We already should be taking care of the hungry and thirsty and those in need.   It's not our job to govern society.  It's our job to proclaim the Gospel.

Now, this doesn't mean we are to simply kowtow to everything a government decides to do.  In Article 16, the reformers wrote:

But when commands of the civil authority cannot be obeyed without sin, we must obey God rather than men.

If the temporal government passes a law that is contrary to our calling as Christians and causes us to sin, we must obey God's law and not the government.  God forbid that Jim Crow laws would ever be put in effect again, but if somehow they were, it would be our calling to resist and follow the command to make no distinction between children of God.

What I believe is important here is to discern what is and what is not our responsibility as the Church.  Perhaps if we stuck to such things, many of our pews wouldn't be so empty on Sunday mornings.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

When Is Enough, Enough?

The big political news these days is the tax deal brokered by President Obama and Republicans to extend the "Bush Tax Cuts" and add several others in an attempt to further stimulate the U.S. economy.  According to most pundits, both sides are having to swallow some bitter pills to make this bill a reality for John Q public, and in typical fashion, the loudest voices in opposition are getting the most air time on the public airwaves.

One interesting voice arose a couple days ago as Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont staged a mini-filibuster on this bill.

In his speech, he repeatedly asked the question: How much is enough?  Of course, he was directing such a question at those who have accumulated a great deal of wealth. 

Sanders was arguing that those who have amassed a certain amount of wealth should carry more responsibility when it comes to paying for the cost of governing our country.

In some regards, Sanders' argument is bibilically based:

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.  --Luke 12: 48b

Incidentally, that's Jesus speaking there--a pretty good source of authority. 

This passage is found within Jesus' teachings on the end of days when the Lord will return.  Jesus, as I read this text, is encouraging His disciples to be devoted to the work of the Kingdom of God so that when the Lord indeed returns, He finds folks laboring at His work and not taking part in their own selfish desires.

In a very real way, this text is about stewardship--our using the gifts God has entrusted to us.  If God has entrusted us with much, much is expected out of us.  That means our time, our talent, our money, our very lives. 

But it does beg then the question: when is enough, enough?  And, further, who decides when enough is enough?

Ah, now here is the rub, is it not?

The day after Sanders' speech on the Senate floor, Glenn Beck followed up on Sanders' comment.  Interestingly enough, even Beck recognized that there comes a time when one must put a limit on the pursuit of wealth.  He quoted a dear friend of his who told him that if one continues to pursue wealth, it eventually becomes all consuming.  You will never have enough.

So according to Beck, his friend told him, "Decide how much is enough.  Get to that point, and then do something else with what you make."

Beck used this illustration to point out his belief that the government has no business telling anyone how much is enough.  It should be left up to individuals to decide how much is enough.

There is merit to what Beck says. 

As Christians, God does give us guidance in how we should be stewards.  We are to feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; visit the sick and imprisoned; love our neighbor as ourselves; care for creation; care for those who have a need. 

Yet, even as God helps us know what we SHOULD do, He does not force us to do it.  God does not say, "Do this or I will come down there and zap you."  In this life, we have freedom to choose how we will be stewards of what we have been given.

Now, there are some very stern warnings about what will happen if we are not good stewards.  Remember this little story from Matthew 25:

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” 23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

There are some real consequences to abdicating our stewardship.  Yet, in this parable, there is nothing wrong with the continued acquisition of wealth--especially if it is in service to the Master.

So, now we come to the crossroads:

1. If it's o.k. for a Christian to acquire wealth,
2. If there is no limit on how much a Christian can acquire,
3. If God doesn't punish in this lifetime for poor stewardship,
4. If there are those who do not practice stewardship according to biblical standards,

Should someone step in to ensure that stewardship is being practiced "correctly?"  (I put that in quotes because I'm not exactly sure what correct stewardship is.  I have a feeling that we all miss the mark when it comes to the concept of biblical stewardship.)

Is Bernie Sanders right when he says the government should tax the wealthy more because they have enough?  Is Glenn Beck right when he says it should be left up to individuals to decide for themselves?

I guess much of it depends upon where a person's bottom line is.  It's always easier for a person to look at someone wealthier and say, "He or she has more, so he or she should pay more."  But if my bottom line was higher up there, I guarantee you, I'd be singing a different tune.

I wish I had the answer to this one.  It's pretty difficult to slosh through.  Do I think I have enough?  Materially, yes.  I'm in good shape with the stuff I have.  Do I think I have enough in the bank?  Does anyone?  For me, looking at three children who are going to go through school, want to drive, go to college, get married, etc.... and then if I eventually want to retire...I'd have to say, "No.  I don't think the bank account looks so good."

Yet, could I afford to pay more to Uncle Sam particularly in light of massive deficits, faltering Social Security, and a continued need to support those who have lost their jobs due to mismanagement by others?  I could.  Things would be a little tighter, but we would manage.

When is enough, enough?  I just don't know, I guess.  Perhaps, in the big scheme of things, we would do better to stop worrying about what others are doing, how they are managing their wealth, and instead focus on our own stewardship and handling of what we do have.  Perhaps, our lives might get a little easier.

Then again, what do I really know?

Probably, not much.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Christmas Challenge: Sermon on Advent 3

One of the tricky things I have learned about parenting is that one must be very careful about how much you intervene in a kid’s life. What do I mean by that?

Well, I have discovered that as a parent, you really want everything to be great for your kids. You can’t stand it when they hurt or are sick. When your kid has a fever and feels rotten, you want to make it better right now. You don’t want to wait for them to get better. Patience goes out the window. Same thing when they are struggling to figure out how to play a game or put together a puzzle. They try so hard, and you want to make it easy for them. You want to help them get over their frustration before it erupts. You want to make things easy.

This was driven home to me once again this past week when my oldest came home on Tuesday and started complaining that her tummy hurt. There was a part of me that was really concerned since the stomach bug has been going around, so I asked her if she needed to throw up. She said no. I asked her if she was hungry. Being right after school and before supper, she said yes. So we ate dinner, and I thought nothing more of it.
Later that night, she complained that her tummy was hurting again. Again, I asked if she needed to throw up or go to the bathroom. She said no on both accounts. I told her that she would be O.K. and that she needed to go to sleep.

At ten til five the next morning, I start hearing, "Daddy! Daddy!"

I get up out of bed and walk to my daughter’s room. I peek my head in the door and ask, "What’s wrong?"

"I had a nightmare."

I walked over to her bed and hugged her and gave her some words of reassurance. Usually, this works with no difficulty. I rubbed her on the back and said, "Now go back to sleep."

I went back to my bed, hoping to squeeze in another hour before we had to get up and start getting the kids ready for school. No such luck. A couple of minutes passed, and I hear, "Daddy. Daddy!"

I walk back to my daughters’ room. "What is it, Kiera?"

"My tummy hurts."

Again, I go through the questioning of throwing up and going to the bathroom.

Negative on both counts.

Then, it dawns on me. Kiera’s school Christmas program is that evening. Could it be that she was scared?

"Kiera, are you nervous about your program tonight?"

Her eyes got wide, and she nodded her head. She...was...scared.

I reminded her that she had been on stage before for her dance class.

"But I’ve never sung in front of people," she replied.

It was at this point that I knew there was little I could do. I knew no matter how I tried to comfort her, no matter how hard I tried to explain it to her that everything was going to be O.K. No matter how hard I tried to tell her that she didn’t need to be scared, I would fail. There was nothing I could do to take that fear from her, and I wanted to. I wanted to take that fear of the unknown and remove it so she could face that crowd of people without any nerves what-so-ever. But I couldn’t. She would have to face it, and hopefully, overcome it.

And perhaps it is a good thing that I could not take that fear away for her. Perhaps it is a good thing that she had to face it on her own. Perhaps it is a good thing that I couldn’t make everything better at that moment in time. As a parent, I know that part of my job is to equip my kids to face the challenges of this world. At some point and time, they will have to try and make it on their own, and I will not always be around to coddle them, to do things for them, or to ease their fears and anxieties. They will have to be strong enough to endure hardships and weather the storms of life on their own. They will need to meet small challenges on their own and have small victories so that they will be better prepared to meet the larger ones that come down the road. And I will be there, encouraging and cheering them on in the process–hopefully helping them become stronger in their physical, mental, and spiritual lives. But, I cannot do everything for them. I’ve got to step back and give them time to develop their own muscles.

Perhaps this is some of what is going on in our second lesson this morning from the book of James. The author is encouraging folks to be patient as they await the coming of the Lord. Just as a farmer has to be patient while waiting for rain, we must be patient as we await the return of Jesus. After stating this, James throws in an interesting comment, "Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near." Why would James include this?

Well, let’s look at the remainder of what he says in this lesson, "9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful."

Pay special attention to the words patience, suffering, and endurance. Apparently, not all was well with the folks James is writing to. They were facing adversity of some sort, and it was trying their patience. They were having problems enduring that adversity, so James tries to reassure them. "Strengthen your hearts, the Lord is coming, and He is compassionate and merciful."

Stick it out. Be tough. Remember who you are and who you belong to. Jesus will return to take care of things, but don’t just sit and whine and complain. Strengthen your hearts. Make them tougher. Now, how in the world does one do that? How does one become tougher in one’s heart?

When my daughter complained about her tummy hurting and her being scared about standing in front of people and singing, I could have taken her out of the program. I could have told her that she didn’t have to sing. I’m sure her tummy would have stopped hurting at that instant. But, I made her face her fear. I made her go through with the program. When she got on stage, I could see that she was scared. I could see that she was uncomfortable, but she got through it. She didn’t freak out. She didn’t panic. She endured, and now, she is stronger for it. I’m not sure she wants to run out in front of a group of people any time soon, but she is a little stronger for doing what she did.

Perhaps this is a lesson for us as well. You know as well as I that there are many fears and anxieties that surround us. You know as well as I that there are things we’d prefer not to do; things that we’d prefer running from and never having to face. You know as well as I that we would like all of these things taken away from us so that we would never have to endure them. But God doesn’t allow us to do this. God doesn’t take all of our cares and worries and trials and tribulations away from us because our hearts need to be strengthened. He does not want us to be living in fear. He wants us to be strong enough to face whatever comes our way, and He’s going to help us get there. And in order to get there, we have to be willing to face the things that frighten us.

I would like to offer you a challenge this morning. It is a challenge that have already taken upon myself this Christmas season. I know the politically correct phrase is "Happy Holidays." I know there are folks out there who do not celebrate Christmas and who might get offended by what I am going to suggest, but let’s start with a small challenge. From here on out, whenever you depart from someone in the grocery store, at a restaurant, or some other place, offer that person a Merry Christmas. Don’t do it maliciously, but genuinely seeking to convey to that other person the real reason for the season. We are called to bear witness to our Lord and Savior, and that can be a scary thing. Evangelism isn’t easy for many of us–believe it or not, myself included. So, I challenge you even as I challenge myself. As we await for our Lord’s return, let’s take steps to strengthen our hearts, and let’s see what happens. Amen.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Have You Ever Prayed for Someone to Fart?

I just got back from visiting one of my members who was in the hospital.

She was recovering from surgery to remove a growth from around her small intestine. 

For those who don't know it, when you have such a surgery, your intestines shut down and become paralyzed for a time.  Sometimes it takes several days, sometimes up to a week or so for them to kick back in.  Believe it or not, the hospital will not release you until you can fart.

I was reminded of this by my member.

I told her I could expedite the process by running down to the local Taco Bell; however it was spoken in jest since she is still having quite a bit of pain in her stomach and having to have her stomach pumped periodically to prevent her from vomiting.

We had a good visit, and it came time for me to head out.  Of course, I was asked to offer a prayer before I left.

During the prayer, I asked God to help her fart.

Was I wrong?

I don't think so. 

Too often, our prayers are so generic that they could be given for any situation, but I think part of mature prayer is the ability to ask for things both large and small.  I believe part of mature prayer is being able to pray for someone's fever to go away as well as someone's cancer to be healed.  I believe mature prayer is a willingness to be very specific as well as general--when the occasion calls for it.

This woman would not be allowed to get out of the hospital until her intestines started functioning again.  The proof that this healing was happening was her farting.  I prayed that she would be able to fart.

I think God understands.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Singing Christmas Carols

For some in the church, I am committing a major faux pax this Sunday (as I did last Sunday).  Every hymn this Sunday is a Christmas Carol.  Some out there might be scratching their heads wondering, "What is the problem with this?"

Well, I am a pastor in a liturgical church.  This means, we follow what is called the "Church Year."  We have certain seasons of the year which we celebrate which have themes and expectations.  Currently, we are in the season of Advent.  This season is a time of preparation as we await the birth of Jesus on one hand and his return on the other.

And the problem is?

Well, Advent is not Christmas.  According to the Church calendar, the Christmas season lasts for 12 days following the season of Advent.

And the problem is?

You are not supposed to sing Christmas carols/hymns during Advent.  Advent is Advent.  Christmas is Christmas.   The two are not supposed to meet.  That's at least to liturgical purists.

I understand their point.  Christmas has become very commercialized.  Stores begin putting out Christmas decorations before Halloween these days.  They glorify consumption and urge us to be good little consumers and buy, buy, buy.  Retailers are not concerned about anything but their bottom line.  Some folks start putting Christmas lights up the day after Halloween.  Never mind waiting until Thanksgiving any longer. 

Liturgical purists argue that we should wait and be patient.  We should not join the rest of the throng that jumps straight into Christmas without preparing for the true meaning of the season.

I appreciate such sentiments.  Yet, I bump up against another reality.

Liturgy is taken from a couple of Greek words which literally mean, "The work of the people."

In other words, when folks get together to worship, it is their work which they are performing.  It is their worship which they are offering to God.  It is not my worship, or an organist's worship, or the choir director's worship, or the bishop's worship, or what have you.  It is their work which they are offering up.

And honestly, my church (I think I am accurately reading this) doesn't like singing Advent hymns--aside from "O Come, O Come Emanuel."  The congregation finds them a little difficult and not so conducive to worship.  This was evidenced beyond a shadow of a doubt a Sunday ago where we sang Advent hymns for the first two songs and switched to Christmas carols during and after Holy Communion.

Can you guess which songs the congregation sang better?

Can you guess which songs the congregation put their hearts into when singing?

No brainier, right?

And if, just if, the liturgy is the work of the people...

And if, just if, the people are putting more zeal into worship when singing Christmas carols instead of Advent hymns...

And if, just if, folks are supposed to worship with their whole hearts and with gusto...

Why would I prevent them from doing so when there is no God-ordained rule which states, "Thou shalt not sing Christmas carold during Advent"?

Of course, I will still make them sing the obligatory Advent hymns for a couple of Sundays.  After all--we all need to offer some penance for our sins. :-)

But, I refuse to prevent people from worshiping with their hearts.  I want to help them do their work of worshiping God, so we are already singing Christmas carols.  The liturgical purists are welcome to take their shots now.

For all the good they will do.

We'll still sing Christmas carols.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A School Christmas Program

Let me begin this post by offering a couple of disclaimers:

First, I am not one of those folks who believe in a government or other such conspiracy to remove the Christian element of Christmas from the public sector.  I know well and full that we live in a country of religious freedom, and I am aware of our Constitution's explicit statement forbidding the government to establish or prohibit the expression of religious freedom. 

Second, I know we are a country of many faith traditions.  Each person celebrates religious holidays differently, and I respect each person for doing so.  I respect the fact that I have friends who do not celebrate Christmas, and I wish them well as they celebrate whatever traditions they have religious and otherwise.

Thirdly, I believe we have the freedom to choose how we wish to celebrate things and how we do not wish to celebrate things.  If I thought my kids were being led to do something that was against my religious principles, I would withdraw them from that experience.

Putting all that out there, I now must share my first experience with a public school Christmas (if you can call it that) program.

Last night, I had that wonderful experience as my oldest daughter participated in the first grade, kindergarten, and pre-school holiday program (I can't bear to call it a Christmas program).  O.K.  I'll admit that the program was cute.  Santa fell off his sleigh at the South Pole, got knocked on the noggin, and got a severe case of amnesia.  The penguins, Christmas trees, and elves all tried to help him remember what he was supposed to be doing on Christmas--giving out presents so that all the children wouldn't be disappointed.  The emperor penguin eventually shows up, hypnotizes Santa, and restores his memory.  Christmas is saved!  Yay!!!

Oh there were some really cute songs that the kids sang.  They were very enjoyable.  But as I sat there, I thought about what was being conveyed in this program.  Christmas was reduced to a fat man in a red suit bringing presents to good children.  There were a few comments thrown in there about peace and goodwill toward all folks, but those seemed pretty out of place.  I mean, why worry about peace and goodwill when the tragedy was that Santa couldn't deliver his gifts to the kids? 

There were comments about the "magical" nature of Christmas.  Really?  What's so magic about it when everything is reduced to getting gifts?  Those gifts better be awfully nice in order for things to become truly magical.  For me, Christmas isn't going to be too magical unless I walk outside and see a Ford Mustang GT convertible.  That will make it truly magical and wonderful. 

Oh mercy. 

You could start calling me a "Bah Humbug" about right now, but I don't think that's the case.  I'm just too infused with the real meaning and purpose of Christmas, I think.  I'm much like Charlie Brown walking around and seeing all the stuff that has built up around Christmas and saying, "Christmas is too commercial.  Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?!!"

It certainly isn't about Santa Claus.

It certainly isn't about penguins helping him gain his memory back.

It certainly isn't about getting presents.

And yet, this is what it's been reduced too in many circles.

My heart has been captured by the viral Youtube video of the group singing Handel's "Alleluia Chorus" in that Canadian Mall.  I've watched it every day for the past couple of weeks.  There is something about that video that captures my heart when I think about Christmas.  Perhaps its the willingness of these folks to sing a religious carol in the middle of a public square.  Perhaps it's the expressions on the faces of the people around.  Perhaps it's the joy on the expressions of many of the singers. 

In my view of things (and it is a huge assumption on my part) I think that joy is because of their relationship with that baby born on Christmas morning.  In my mind, I see them singing and proclaiming their faith in the middle of a culture which seeks to minimize it.  I see them standing proud, showing that their lives are changed in some small way by their faith.

Ah, but how to convey this at a school program?  How do we take the message of Christmas into an arena where the courts have prohibited Christians from singing Christmas Carols? 

I understand why.  I know why.  If I were Jewish, I wouldn't want my kids singing hymns about the arrival of the Messiah when I believed he hadn't come yet.  If I were atheist, I wouldn't want my kids learning about something that I believed was a total myth.  Yet, would I deprive those who believe such things deeply from bringing that forth even at a public event?  Hmmm.

There was a moment last night when I was awfully tempted to stand up immediately following the program and begin singing "O Come All Ye Faithful".  I wondered how it might be received.  I wondered if folks would understand why I was singing.  I confess it would have been much easier had I known others would have been there to join in, but for me, I guess, it was my own silent desire to bring my faith out into the public arena.  It was my own desire to proclaim the real reason for Christmas.  Forget the penguins.  Forget the fat man in the red suit.  Forget the reindeer.  Forget the Christmas trees. 

Let's take a moment to remember why we wish to promote peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. –Isaiah 6:9

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Tummy Hurts!

Working on a little less sleep than usual today. 

My oldest woke up a little before 5 a.m. this morning after having a nightmare.  Of course, she called for Daddy.  I dutifully walked in, reassured her, and told her to go back to sleep.  Usually, that's all that's needed.  Not this time.

A few moments later, "Daddy!  Daddy!" came the cry.

A little frustrated, I walked back into her room. 

"My tummy hurts."

I'm a dad.  Perhaps too well trained in what makes kids' tummies hurt.  My first response, "Do you need to throw up?"

Head shakes.

"Do you need to go potty?"
Head shakes again.

"Are you hungry?"


Running out of options....

Of course, it was a morning on a very big day for my oldest.  It is her first Kindergarten program--a Christmas program.  On the stage.  In front of a lot of people.  It dawns on me, "She's nervous as all get out."

"Kiera, are you nervous about your program today?"

Head nods profusely.  "I'm scared."

"You've been on stage before for your dance class."

"But, I've never sung on stage before.   I'm nervous."

Of course, I want to fix it.  I want her to stop being nervous.  Part of it is because I want to go lay back down and get another hour of sleep--selfish, I know.  And of course, part of it is because I want her to know that there is really nothing to worry about.  She'll be up there with a whole lot of other kids.  She won't be in the spotlight.  She doesn't even have to sing really loud.  Everything will be O.K.

But you can't necessarily convince a 5 year old who is facing her stage debut of these things.  Fear overwhelms.  Nerves get fried.  Tummies start hurting.

Having been in her shoes, I know some of what is going on in her head.  A fear of the crowd.  A fear of messing up.  A fear of doing something different.

At her age, she really shouldn't worry about such things.  She will have many new experiences, and this is just one in a long line.  She should get used to it.  Messing up is really no big deal at this point.  Everyone has at some point, and the good news about the crowd is they are really very forgiving.  Messing up just adds to the overall "cuteness" of the programs at this age.  It's the mess ups that bring the most smiles as folks remember their own trepidation at being in front of everyone.  But she doesn't understand this just yet.  I wish I could make it easier on her.  I wish I could just zap that nervousness out of her.  I wish it were good enough for me to tell her, "Don't worry.  Everything is going to be O.K."

Yet, I know she's going to have to suffer through it.  She'll have to experience it first before my words hit home.  After enduring her first performance, she will see that everything is O.K.  And perhaps, just perhaps she will learn to trust me a little bit more.

In some small measure, I think I can get a glimpse of what God must feel toward us as His children.  Many of us go through life with a little bit of fear, a little bit of worry hanging around the bend.  We're nervous about our jobs.  We're nervous about having someone over.  We're nervous of how we are perceived by others around us.  Aw, heck, I've been on a Christmas theme here recently.  Let's continue the thoughts regarding our celebrations of Christmas:

a.  We're nervous about whether or not people will like our gifts.

b.  We're nervous about whether or not we can afford to buy the gifts we want to buy.

c.  We're nervous about keeping our families happy with our visitation schedules.

d.  We're nervous about having the perfect meal cooked for everyone coming over.

e.  We're nervous about getting all the stuff done before Christmas arrives.

And all the while, our Heavenly Father is saying, "Don't worry about all that stuff.  It will take care of itself.  Focus on what is really important."

And we will refuse to listen.  We will worry.  Our anxiety will shoot through the roof.  Soon, we will be saying, "My tummy hurts!"  We'll reach for the Tums, the Tagamet, the Mylanta, the Pepcid or whatever choice of antacid suits.  We'll reach for the bottle to calm our nerves.  And eventually, we will get through it.  We will celebrate Christmas and heave a sigh of relief that everything was O.K.

But when all is said and done, will we trust our Heavenly Father more?  Will we learn our lesson and see that we need not stress so much? 

I guess only time will tell.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Modern Day John the Baptist Story

I would like to ask you to pretend for just a minute that one Sunday you decided to attend worship at another congregation several miles from here. Through the grapevine you had hear about a new preacher who was rather eccentric and unorthodox in his methods and preaching. Curiosity got the better of you, and so you traveled to witness this new guy and hear what he had to say.

When you arrived in the town where this occurrence was taking place, you had to inquire for directions. Everyone from the town knew where things were taking place, and one person was kindly enough to give you street names and directions. Dutifully following these, you headed to hear this preacher.

You arrived where this guy was supposedly preaching, and it wasn’t what you expected. Instead of a nice church building with paved, marked parking, you arrived at an empty lot. It was singularly unattractive. There was no place to sit. Looking around, you saw no sound system, no instruments, nothing that would even make you believe this was where a church gathered. Several boards looked like they had been hastily put together as a sort of stage, but you would be fearful of standing on it because it looked very unstable and like it could fall apart at the least bit of urging. Other curious folks started showing up, meandering around the lot showing the same sense of misgiving and trepidation you had.

As you mingled, you found you had the same questions they did. "What time does everything start? What have you heard about this guy? Can you really believe some of the things you have heard? Do you think he is really God’s messenger?" The murmurings grew louder around the lot as more folks arrived. Everyone was so busy, they hardly noticed the preacher walk through their midst and take his place upon the rickety stage.

"Who invited you to come here?" a voice suddenly boomed over the crowd. All the chatter stopped, and everyone focused their attention on the man now standing in front of them. As you saw him for the first time, your mouth was agape. Instead of a well-kempt, clean cut, nicely attired gentleman, this guy looked nothing of the sort. His hair was a mangled mess looking as if it hadn’t been combed or washed for days. His facial hair was uneven and tangled. His clothes literally looked like a patchwork of rags. His jeans had been patched and sewn several times. Even the patches had patches. His shirt was threadbare, and you could literally see his undershirt through it–an undershirt that looked stained and greasy. He had no socks and wore tattered sandals. His feet were dirty revealing toenails that had not been clipped and were full of dirt. This man was supposed to be a speaker for God? Your mind immediately doubted.

With no apology for his appearance or further words of welcome, the man renewed his questioning. "Who invited you to come here? You are nothing more than a bunch of self-centered, hypocritical beasts. You are lower than snakes, and yet you come here to hear a word of God from me? Do you think I will somehow save you from God’s wrath? Instead of standing here and listening, go and get busy. Turn your lives around from sin. Stop acting immorally. Start taking care of those who are less fortunate than you. Don’t act so innocent. God knows what you do and what you don’t do, and don’t stand there thinking that you are so high and mighty just because you say that you are a Christian.

God can take the very stones of the earth and turn them into Christians–real Christians who not only call upon the name of Jesus with their lips but who also put his teachings into actions. If you are not doing what Christ commanded, you are in serious trouble. If you are not bearing the fruit he has commanded you to bear, you will stand in judgement. For he is coming. He will harvest what he has sown, and if you are not bearing fruit, he will cut you down and throw you into the fire. Do not be a hypocrite any longer! Throw away your self-righteousness! Stop thinking that you and God are so buddy, buddy! Yes, He loves you, but He will not hesitate to dole out punishment! Prepare for His return!"

For a solid hour, this preacher continues on in this manner. There is a part of you that wants to leave, that wants to get away as fast as you can. Yet, there is another part of you which cannot leave. You struggle within yourself wondering if it is because if this guy is telling the truth or if you feel like you are watching a train wreck and cannot take your eye off of it. You stay until the bitter end, and you walk back to your car.

As you drive home, you resolve to attend your home church next week and report to your pastor what you have seen. And you think about your church and your pastor. What would happen to your church if such a man as the one you had just seen preached there Sunday after Sunday? Would it draw people into it? Would offerings increase, or would they dry up? Would people accept a scruffy looking, no a derelict looking man as their pastor? Would they take being shouted at week in and week out? Would your church grow?

Such questions I think are appropriate since we see such a model of preaching and teaching in our gospel lesson this morning. As you might guess, I am trying to draw a parallel in this fictional story between the preacher in the deserted lot and John the Baptist–for that preacher and John acted very similarly. John pulled no punches when he addressed his crowds. He didn’t sugar coat things for them. He didn’t make them feel warm and fuzzy. He didn’t make them feel loved by God. He took a verbal hammer and hit them right between the eyes with it. And I am sure that more than a few people walked away from there grumbling and mumbling under their breath. Several were probably worried about John for they figured he would eventually tick off the wrong person. Incidentally, John eventually did that, and it cost him his head.

Yet, I don’t think John was overly worried about such a thing. John wasn’t worried about what his preaching and teaching would cost him because he had a job to do. He was there to prepare the way for Jesus. He was there to make the paths straight. Now, you try making a path straight without doing some major lifting or some extensive construction work. See how far you get. Sometimes, in order to straighten something out, you’ve got to put some muscle into it. John did just that as he dealt with those whose hearts were crooked.

It’s a far cry from what we normally hear in our churches today. We tend to rail against churches who scare the fire out of people and make them fear judgment. I must confess that I am not one to use hell fire and judgment to invoke people to live Christian lives. My main reason is that I prefer to lead by example and teach that we are called to live Christian lives out of our love of God and not fearfulness of Him. Yet, there is a danger in such an approach if one is not careful.

Just this week, I came across a story told by Martin Marty, a Lutheran theologian and scholar. He wrote, "One critic said he had gone to many churches and heard the preacher say, "Don't try to impress God with your works" or "Don't attempt to please God with your merits" or "Don't try to keep the rules and regulations and thus win your way." He [the critic] looked around at nearly slumbering collections of utterly casual Christians and wondered, "Who's trying?"

Indeed, who’s trying? Who is trying to live the Christian life? Who is trying to uphold the moral standards taught by Christ, by the apostle Paul and by others who wrote the Bible? Who is trying to make a difference in dealing with injustice, with poverty, with the hungry–all things which Jesus strongly encouraged his followers to engage in? Who is trying to make a difference with reaching out to those who have not heard the word of God–to make disciples of all nations as Jesus called us? Who is trying to invite their friends and family members to attend worship and live in a responsible manner? Who is seeking to bear fruit and live lives of repentance?

Perhaps a church led by a John the Baptist will not grow and become a major power player in the world. Yet, we need to hear such a message from time to time. We need to be reminded that Christ will come again to judge us. We need to be reminded to leave our self-righteousness and hypocrisy behind. We need to be reminded that God can create Christians out of the stones of the ground if he needed to. And we need to be reminded that if we are living our lives as we are called to live them, he won’t need to. We need to be reminded that our faith is more than simply words on a page or words from our lips, but it is put into action as we are called to bear fruit. Amen.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Christmas Shopping

Friday evening, my wife and I got a baby sitter for the kids and headed out for the "dreaded" Christmas shopping trip.

Sticking to my guns, we only put together a list of all the folks we needed to buy for.  We did not consult with anyone to ask what they wanted.  We would look, and if we found something that we knew our friends and relatives liked (within financial reason) we would buy it.

I think I can speak for my wife as well as for me: we had more fun on this shopping trip than we have had in a while.  It was fun to walk around and look at stuff and consider what our folks would and wouldn't like.  We had to do a little more thinking, but it made the trip more enjoyable.

We bought no gift certificates.

We stayed well within our budget.

There was really no stress or worry trying to find what the other folks "wanted."  We got to be creative as we sought out how best to convey to our friends and family our Christmas wishes.

We have also decided to not go overboard with our gift giving.  Our children have more toys than they need.  Why buy tons of stuff?  Why add financial stress to this time of year?

It blows my mind that instead of a season of celebration, many turn it into a season of stress.  Perhaps one of the reasons is because we strive to make so many people happy at one time.  Haven't we learned by now that it is impossible to make everyone happy?  Haven't we learned by now that it is impossible to make even one other person happy?

I love the sign which says, "I can only make one person happy per day.  Today is not your day.  Tomorrow is not looking good either."

Can you imagine a holiday season where you are not trying to make everyone happy?  Can you envision a holiday season where you are concentrating on your own relationship with God and with others despite how everyone else might respond to you?  Imagine a holiday seasons where you aren't worried about how someone will respond to your gift but are satisfied with the thought and effort you put into getting what you got.  Imagine a holiday season where you aren't stressing believing it is your responsibility to make everyone smile and rejoice, and instead you believed that their happiness was up to them.  Imagine a holiday season where you gave to others because you wanted to instead of feeling an obligation to.

What would such a season be like?  Would you enjoy it more?  Would you feel like you had a chance to marvel at the events you were supposed to be celebrating?  Think about it some.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Perfet Gift

I'm taking a different approach to gift giving this year.

I'm sure anyone who reads this blog will have already seen the commercials hounding us to get the perfect gift for our loved ones.  Many of us are already listening for hints or grasping at straws wondering just what we can get that will make our loved ones happy and joyful.  The gifts that will make our parents gasp in surprise and make our spouses giving us that knowing look.

How many of us will phone our relatives and ask, "What do you want for Christmas?"  Or even better, "What do you NEED?"

Wait a minute.  Is that what gift giving has become?  Has giving turned into let-me-ask-you-what-you-want-so-I-can-give-it-to-you?

Yeah, I can see God in heaven thinking about redeeming the world and asking us, "I'm going to save you and show you how much I love you.  What gift can I give you to help in this process?"

Um.  Money would be nice.

How about a nice car?  That would really make me love you, God.

Or how about a really big house?

Or worldly power?  If you made me ruler over the world or at least a kingdom, I'd really love you.

Make sure I will never have to worry about food or clothing or money, and I'll be satisfied.  That would guarantee you a spot right up there at the top, God.

Can you see the absurdity in such a thing?

Now, I'm not suggesting that anyone is God when it comes to the process of giving.  God knows what we need, and He knew we needed a Savior, His Son.  He knew how to send Him and where to send Him.  He is God after all.  But giving isn't necessarily about getting another person what they need.  Giving should be driven by our love for that other person.  Giving should be driven by the desire to express what we feel and not by what the receiver expects.

Therefore, the perfect gift is a gift that expresses your heartfelt love and appreciation of another person.  It can be something great or small.  It can be something simple or ornate.  But it must come from your heart, not the other person's.

That's why I'm not calling and asking my parents what they want or need for Christmas.  That's why I'm not doing the same thing for my in-laws.  Or my God-children.  Or my grandmother or grandfather.  My wife and I are getting a baby sitter and going shopping this Friday evening, and I'm going with no expectations of what to get.  If I see something that seems appropriate, I will buy it and give it.  It will come from my heart, and it will be the perfect gift.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Getting Ready for Christmas

There was too much going on in my life to really sit down and do a reflection on Thanksgiving this year.  Between church stuff and getting the stomach bug, my blogging took a hit during that holiday.  Intentionally deciding to spend as much time with family as possible also made blogging take a back seat, so I didn't share this little event...until now.

Because we had church the night before, we didn't do any traveling on Thanksgiving.  It was just the five of us who spent a quiet day enjoying each other's company.  I took the kids outside to the church playground early in the morning.  Many leaves had fallen from the pecan and ash trees on the playground, so I got my raked and proceeded to make a giant leaf pile.  The kids ran and jumped into it with enthusiasm.  It was particularly fun to watch Kevin, Jr. since he's still pretty short.  When he jumped into the pile, he almost disappeared!  He didn't seem to mind as he laughed and giggled the entire time.

But, as with most things, kids get board pretty quickly, so I told the kids it was time for us to go inside and watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  They hustled inside and sat down to watch.  Thankfully, they were enthralled by what they were watching, so it gave me time to get in the kitchen and prepare our Thanksgiving meal.  (Yes.  I am the chief cook of the house.)

I finished up lunch just as the parade was finishing.  All along, we had told the kids that Santa Claus was coming at the end of the parade.  As the time was drawing near, they began to ask repeatedly, "Where's Santa?" 

My wife and I kept replying, "Just wait.  Be patient.  He's almost here."

The table was set.  The food was in place.  It was ready to go, but I wasn't about to tell the kids to get to the table just yet.  They wanted to see Santa.

And then, he appeared.  Jolly Old Saint Nick, wearing his red suit, white beard and driving his sleigh.  I'll not soon forget my children's reaction.

The three of them began yelling, "It's Santa!  It's Santa!  It's Santa!"  They jumped up and down.  They clapped with joy.  There was an absolute exuberance, an absolute joy, and an absolute innocence that brought tears to my eyes at that moment.  The holiday season came alive for those three kids as they saw Santa Claus appear on the screen.  His appearing meant Christmas was just around the corner, and now that they are all old enough to "get it" as far as Christmas is concerned, that meant it was time to be overly excited.

Oh for the faith of a child!!!

For many of us who have crossed that threshold into adulthood, Christmas has lost some of that magic.  We know what it is supposed to be all about.  Not Santa Claus or presents but the birth of Jesus.  We know the real "magic" behind everything, but we lose focus so easily.

We get bogged down in shopping for everyone on our list.  We call folks in advance asking what would be appropriate lest we disappoint someone with our shopping.  We stress over balancing time spent with our families--immediate and extended.  We worry about the bottom lines in our budgets as we shop.  Then many experience a heaping of guilt as every charitable institution in the book comes around to ask for assistance.  We want to help out, but our resources are limited even in the midst of our plenty.  The world of adults is much different than the world of children.

Oh, it's not that we don't feel joyful.  Many of us do.  We look at our kids and become joyful because they are joyful.  When they jump up and down on the couch screaming, "It's Santa!", our hearts come to life for just a moment because memories are rekindled back to the time when we felt such joy.  But is it possible for us to feel such joy on our own?  Without the aid of our children's happiness?  Without the aid of our children's naivete?

This holiday season, I'd like to challenge you to join me to prepare for Christmas so that the joy that is experienced isn't because we see someone else full of joy.  I'd like to challenge you to join me in preparing for Christmas so that when it is announced in whatever form you hear it that "Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.", your heart will leap with joy, and you too would be willing to jump up and down yelling, "He's here!  He's here!  He's here!" 

Life is too short to allow only our children to have and experience true joy.  Somehow.  Some way.  I believe that joy needs to be a part of our lives as well.  For us though, it might take a little bit more preparation to have it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Johnson/Finnegan Fallout and Blaming God

First a follow-up to yesterday's post about the Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan brawl.

Here's the scoop on what the NFL's "punishment" for these players is:

Both of these guys are millionaires.  Neither of them will feel that fine at all.  Essentially, it's a slap on the wrist for both the bully and the one who retaliated.  Finnegan, in typical bully fashion is blaming Johnson for the whole ordeal and refuses to even look in the mirror for the things he was doing to precipitate the brawl.

I think I understand the NFL's reasoning.  Some of it is kosher with me, some of it is not.  The Texans play the Philadelphia Eagles this Thursday, and I am sure, in a league driven by money and ratings, the NFL wanted both teams at their best to give viewers something worth watching.  A hypocritical move, for sure, and something that sends the wrong message in my opinion.

However, I am reasonably sure the NFL also was trying to take into consideration the history of these two players.  You have Andre Johnson who, aside from his run ins with Mr. Finnegan, is the model NFL player.  He is the consummate professional at all other times.  He plays hard, has an air of humility, and is charitable.  He apologized for his actions and took full responsibility for them.  He expected punishment, and is not appealing the NFL's decision.  He knows he was wrong.  The NFL believes Johnson.

The NFL also knows Finnegan.  Finnegan prides himself in being a dirty player.  Everyone in the league knows it.  The NFL knows that Johnson doesn't have any outbursts with anyone except Mr. Finnegan.  They know this guy got under Andre's skin and made him snap, and I am sure they sympathized in some small manner with Johnson.  They probably wanted to see someone stand up to Finnegan's actions and put him in his place.  But they probably also wanted it to be another "bad boy" of the NFL so that no one would think twice if they fined and suspended both players to the max.

But that's not what happened.  It was one of the "good guys" who ended up in the mix.  The "good guy" stood up to the bully, punched him in the mouth, and stood waiting to accept his punishment.  Now, the NFL was in between a rock and a hard place.  In a league governed by concrete rules, how does one punish a "good guy" for fighting a bully who was constantly and consistently picking on him?  How does the league follow the rules when one party was constantly and purposely pushing the limits and just barely exceeding them so that he didn't draw outrage and the other party toes the line consistently?  Do you risk doing nothing and letting things slide?  Do you give the strictest sentence for both?

I'm of the opinion that because the league is governed by the rules, both players should have been fined and suspended.  That's applying the rule consistently.  However, I personally would have mailed a secret, confidential letter to Andre Johnson telling him, "While we in the NFL don't condone fighting during games, good job of putting the bully in his place." 

From a faith perspective, I believe God operates in much the same way.  He knows our frailties and failings.  He knows we snap when people get under our skin.  He knows we can only take so much and turn the other cheek for so long before we react.  Then, His forgiveness is there.  He doesn't condone our actions, but I know He understands them.

I only wonder one thing now.  Finnegan probably doesn't realize Johnson came out the winner in that fight.  He comes across as a little too arrogant for that.  But, knowing that Johnson can and will fight back, will Finnegan try to bully him again?

My guess is, probably.  As long as he can get away with it, he will.  But I can hope each will learn a lesson from the ordeal.

Second story:

Gotta love this one.  Give thanks to God when things go good, and then blame Him when things go bad.  It is so human nature.  Things haven't changed much since the Garden of Eden.

When I am teaching both adults and kids the story of Adam and Eve and their eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, I purposely have them look closely at Adam's response to God when God asks, "What have you done?"  Here's the text itself from Genesis chapter 3:

11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

Look very carefully at who the man blames for the eating of the fruit.  Did you say the woman?  Try again. 


Adam blames God.  The implication is, "If you wouldn't have given her to be with me, nothing would have happened.  Why did you do this to me God?"

Yeah.  Right.  Don't take responsibility for your actions.  Blame everyone else.  Blame the woman, and if that doesn't work, blame God.  It's everyone else's fault, not your own.

Now, I understand grief and becoming upset when things don't go your way.  I understand that life throws curve balls at you.  I understand that there is a time and a place to become frustrated and angry.  I understand that sometimes things happen that are way out of our control.  Contracting cancer is out of our control (unless you are a smoker).  Being diagnosed is one of those occasions I would actually recommend asking God why.  I would recommend getting a little angry.  God can handle it.  Let it out.

But if you mess up, don't go blaming someone else.  Take responsibility. 

Steve, you will probably never read this blog, but repeat after me:

I dropped the pass.  I'm not perfect, and I showed it beyond the shadow of a doubt today.  I've nobody to blame but myself, and I promise I will work even harder now to ensure that I catch every ball thrown my way.  I don't ever want to let down my teammates, our fans, or myself like that ever again.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Footbal Fight: Andre Johnson's Beat-down of Cortland Finnegan

I apologize for stealing the title from Yahoo Sports, but it was too good.

I was watching this game when the fight occurred, and I appreciate the sentiments of Chris Chase who wrote the article in the link above.  There is part of me that readily agrees.  Part of me might have reacted in the exact same way Andre Johnson did.  When you keep getting pushed and picked on and pushed and picked on, there is a part of you that finally snaps, and you go berserk.  Eventually, a bully pushes you to the point where you snap, and then you let him have it.

I understand such things.  In fact, one of the stories my dad told me growing up continues to stay with me til this day.  He told of the time he was being bullied as a youngster.  One day, my dad had enough, turned around, and punched the bully right in the mouth.  End of bullying. 

I have been lucky enough in my life not to have had to put such a thing into practice--yet.  You never know how things will turn out.

And yet, I am confronted with the reality of my faith at this point and the person I am called to follow and imitate: Jesus Christ.

He says emphatically, "If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek."

Um...Jesus, what if they are bullying you?  What if they won't stop?  What if they refuse to leave you alone even if you don't strike back time after time after time?  Do we have to put up with bullying?  Do we have to put up with punks?

You know, Andre Johnson really didn't have to respond to Finnegan in the manner he did.  Johnson had been eating Finnegan's lunch all day long.  Finnegan couldn't stop all.  Except by making him lose his cool.  Ultimately Finnegan won this battle because he was able to get the Texan's best player ejected.  Luckily, the Texans had the game in hand, and when all was said and done, it didn't damage the team for this go round.  But what happens if Johnson is suspended?  That will certainly hurt his team.

Johnson was apologetic.  He manned up for his actions which I appreciate.  He knows there was a better way to handle the situation in this instance.  He knows the officials are there to deal with players like Finnegan.  He knows he should have let them handle it, but it's awfully hard to put it into practice when someone gets under your skin.

In the brawl between Johnson and Finnegan, turning the other cheek was definitely the preferred response, but I also believe there is a time and a place to stand up to bullies.  You cannot always rely upon authorities to be there to stop the bullying.  Sometimes, you've got to take matters into your own hands.  Sometimes, I believe you have to punch them in the mouth. 

I know I'm at odds with Jesus here, but you have to remember, He's a much better man than I am.  He's much stronger than I am.  And if I ever have to punch a bully in the mouth, I hope He's much more forgiving than I am.

A Sermon on Living Honorably

Most of you know that I am an avid Dallas Cowboy’s fan. Most of you also know that this really hasn’t been a good year to be a Dallas Cowboy’s fan. I was fortunate enough to actually see one of their wins, which until two weeks ago was their only win of the season. But then Jerry Jones did something unprecedented in Cowboy’s history. He fired head coach Wade Philips in the middle of the season and replaced him with Jason Garrett.  
Something happened when this coaching transition took place. Suddenly, the team started playing differently. Suddenly, they had a different sense of urgency. They went from being the butt of jokes to actually pulling off a couple of wins. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing my ‘boys being competitive and actually winning. But I have a rather bitter-sweet taste in my mouth.
If you actually bothered to watch the Cowboys before Wade Philips was fired, you know as well as I, that they quit playing for their coach. It looked like they literally didn’t care whether they won or lost. The looked like they weren’t putting out much of an effort to win games. The offense was offensive. The defense, which was supposed to be one of the team’s strengths looked like a sieve. Much of that has changed since Jason Garrett was promoted to interim head coach, and I cannot help but ask: why? Why did these men, many who are paid millions of dollars to play a game quit giving their total effort? What allowed them to be comfortable with losing? Did they even have any self-respect left within them, any dignity?
Unfortunately, in this day and age, when such a thing happens, we tend to look at the leader and give him or her the axe. We tend to lay the blame on the coach, the teacher, the CEO, the pastor, the Bishop, or whoever we sense to be the one in charge. It’s their fault for failing to motivate the troops. But, what ever happened to personal responsibility? What ever happened to having the courage to be self-motivated and do your job to the best of your ability regardless of the circumstances? Such questions arise in my mind as I ponder the Cowboys this year, and as I think about living the life of faith.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. Believe it or not, that means we are starting a new year in the church, and of course, we begin preparing for Christmas. We begin preparing for the arrival of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and I mean that in two ways. We prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but we also prepare for His coming at the last when He will make all things new. This is why we have before us this morning Bible lessons which talk about the end of days. Isaiah’s lesson points us to what will happen when the Lord returns–nations will beat swords into plowshares, and war will be no more. Jesus talks of how some folks will be taken and others will be left, and he urges his followers to be prepared. And St. Paul urges the church in Rome to wake from sleep and live honorably for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. Each lesson invites you and me to ponder what it means for us to live and move and breathe as we wait for Jesus to return and restore creation to what it should be.
Perhaps we need such reminders in our earthly journeys because it is awfully easy to become frustrated with how things are going. It is awfully easy to become bogged down in all the messiness of life. It is awfully easy to become disenchanted with the way things are, and it is easier to just quit than to keep pressing onward. When it comes down to it, it’s easier to say, “What’s the point of all of this anyway?” and just walk away from the challenge of living as we are called to live and be the people God has called us to be.
Why would I say such a thing? Well, let’s think about it for a minute, and I will do so trying to address a couple of concerns that many Christians have. First, let’s talk a little bit about morality. There are many Christians today who are very concerned that this world, this country, and even this church are slipping farther and farther into moral decay. They decry how at one time there was an expectation of how a person was expected to conduct his or her life. Marriage was supposed to be until death do us part. Sex was supposed to be reserved for marriage and marriage alone. Drinking to an excess was completely forbidden. Pornography was supposed to be banned or at the very least completely restricted so that minors couldn’t obtain it at all. And these are just a few of the issues. And yet, for those whom such things are important, they have seen the standards challenged and dropped year afer year after year. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Young folks do not wait for sex. Alcohol is prevalent and folks are encouraged to escape reality by drinking to an excess. Pornography is just a few clicks on a computer away, and it is free. For Christians who are concerned about such things, many feel as if they are fighting a losing battle. They feel as though they are facing a tidal wave, and some even give up hope. “If so many are doing such things without any consequences, why even bother?” they ask. It is awfully tempting to quit.
Now, let’s turn to another subject which raises passion for others in the church: the need to care for those who are poor, oppressed, and facing injustice. Many Christians have a heart and passion for following Christ’s command to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. They want to make a huge difference in the battle against poverty, and they throw themselves at all the injustice: raising money and starting programs to make a difference. They rejoice when they see some positive things happening; however, no matter how much they struggle, poverty doesn’t end. No matter what good is done, there always seems to be someone else who has a need. No matter how hard they work to ensure that everyone has something to eat, awareness is raised about someone else who goes hungry. At every turn, it seems as though someone else is asking for help, not only with eating but with paying electric bills, their rent, or hospital bills. Their generosity overflows, but so does the need. Realizing the massiveness of the need can lead to such folks becoming worn out and depressed. Realizing the massiveness of those who need assistance becomes overwhelming, and there is an awful temptation to quit. “What difference am I truly making?” they ask.
Sometimes, it does feel like we are trying to slam our heads through a brick wall. Sometimes it does feel like we run into adversity no matter which way we turn. Sometimes it does feel like we are overwhelmed and underappreciated. And sometimes, it feels like it would be easier to quit. I think that’s what happened to the Cowboys earlier this year. Too much adversity turned them into quitters.
But, is that our calling as Christians? Are we called to be quitters? Are we called just to sit down and give up because the reality of what we face is too overwhelming?
“Let us live honorably,” St. Paul says. Paul goes on to address many moral issues the church in Rome was facing and calling them to be true to their Christian callings. Yet, can Paul’s phrase help us even more? Can it also give us courage as we await the return of Jesus even in the face of things which cause us dismay?
I remember something my parents taught me about academic and athletic success. It’s something that has stuck with me for many, many years, and I still strive to practice it today. Essentially, my parents told me, “Kevin, no matter what you do, give it your best shot. If you give something your best shot, and you fail, you can still hold your head up because you know you did your best.” Understanding those words helped me know that if I worked my tail end off in class and failed, I still gave it my best. Understanding those words helped me understand that if I played sports and we ran into a team that was bigger, faster, and stronger than us, and yet, if we played our best and still lost, we had nothing to be ashamed of. Understanding those words taught me about living honorably.

As Christians, we will not be able to make everyone follow the morals upheld by Christianity. As Christians, we will not be able to eradicate poverty and injustice. To do each of these would require us to wipe out sin because sin is the root cause of each of these things. Yet, we should not become discouraged in what we do because we know we are not doing them for our own benefit. We are striving to do them for our Heavenly Father. We are striving to do them because we want to give Him our best. When he returns, we want Him to find that we are striving to live honorably, responding to the goodness of His love. And when we strive to do such things for our Heavenly Father, how could we ever quit? Amen.