No gifts for you!

david-everett-strickler-60328.jpgMy wife and I stopped buying Christmas gifts for each other a long time ago.

Why? Read on.

It wasn’t always that way. Early on in our marriage we did buy gifts for each other. What kind of gifts? Beats me. I don’t remember any of them. Actually, that’s not true. I remember one, but only because we video-recorded opening gifts one year in Connecticut. She got me a beard trimmer. I got her some kind of personal grooming thing. That may have been the moment when we both realized, “This is stupid.” We were spending money, often in short supply, on gifts for each other for no other reason than the culture demanded that we buy gifts for each other. It was a lot more fun buying toys for the kids. It was a lot more fun going somewhere and doing something. That may have been the year we decided to not worry about buying Christmas gifts for each other. And we’ve never looked back.

One of the reasons this makes a lot of sense is that I just don’t have much that I want. My Amazon.com wish list is pathetic. If you ask me, what do you want for Christmas, I won’t have much to offer. Frustrating? You bet. I have forgotten about, thrown away, and given away most of the gifts we’ve received over the years. Bottom line: why bother?

If you have read this far, you have probably categorized us as scrooges, which is pretty judgmental and harsh. Come one, give us a break. We have replaced the ceremonial, obligatorial (how do you like that word?) gift-giving mechanism with something that means much more to us. I always create a Christmas card with a poem for Lisa. Then, we invest our Christmas gift dollars into either going to be with our kids, or bringing them here to spend Christmas with us. Believe me, that is a precious, valuable, and memorable gift! Nothing else (not even a nice bottle of scotch or bourbon) will touch that in the gift category!

Our Christmas memory book is filled with photos of our times together, not the merchandise exchanged. Our mental memory books are filled with images of family, places, laughter, births, marriages, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, and parties together. It’s not the stuff, folks, but the relationships and experiences that I want.

This is our year to have everyone at our home for Christmas. In a perfect world, we get every other year. I told my wife today that I have saved up seven months of patience to spend with our grandchildren (ages 3, 2 and 1), so bring it! I will push the swing, play with dinosaurs, line up the miniature cars, eat pretend food, color pictures, make worms with the Playdoh, roll in the grass, pull the bike trailer, push the swing, and read stories until I drop from exhaustion! There is nothing you can give me that can compare to hugging my tall, handsome son and my beautiful, diminutive daughters! (Take a breath girls, and focus on “beautiful”…)

This year, our family exchanged names, so that we only buy one gift for one other person. Grandchildren are exempt. We can buy as many toys for them as we want. But for the exchange, our gifts must be homemade or experiential. It wasn’t mine, but it is a very cool idea. I have received homemade journals in the past, definitely a winner, because I go through three or four a year. I wouldn’t complain if my gift were a few shots or beers at a local establishment. I promise to write about my gift, both given and received, right after our Christmas/New Year celebration.

Do you want to get off the hamster wheel of Christmas gift giving and receiving? Stop giving stuff. Give to a charity. Then, take your significant other out and do something fun. Trust me, it will be worth it!

 

 

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Walk through Bethlehem

web-header---201711Last night, my wife and I, along with my daughter and her family, walked through “Walk Through Bethlehem,” an annual Christmas season production by Crossroads Ministry in Daytona Beach, FL. This is the second time I have gone, but the event is in its twenty-first season. Over two weekends, around 10,000 people walk through a recreation of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, built entirely on twenty-one acres of the church’s campus. The first time I went was two years ago. This time we brought along my two-and-a-half year old grandson, with the promise of seeing a camel. (For some reason, we thought there would be a camel there, but more on that later.)

We went early this year and were some of the first to arrive on the opening night of this years event. Greeted warmly by at least half-a-dozen people, we found out seats in the auditorium staging area, where we waited for our group to be called. Groups of about twenty go on the walk at a time, and while you wait, you get to listen to some great Christmas music by live soloists and ensembles. Since we came early, our wait was short, and before my grandson had consumed two snacks, we headed out with out group to Bethlehem.

We met our “tour guide” in a small hallway, who explained that she would get us in the gate and around the city, so stay close to her. A short walk brought us to the gates of the city, where Roman soldiers made sure we paid an appropriate tax to enter the city (a whole shekel per person!). Inside we followed our guide from place to place in Bethlehem. We went through a noisy market, stopped to visit people who made candles, baked bread, ran inns, sold fruit, made cloth and owned a home in Bethlehem. After we met some young men talking to a couple of priests, we met a carpenter who was being forced to make crosses and a blacksmith who had to make large nails. We finally met up with some shepherds who invited us to stay with them outside of the city, where we heard from an angel that the Christ had been born. When we got to the stable, we got to see a real live baby Jesus, surrounded by his mother and father and a cow and a donkey. After we heard the rest of the story, from the crucifixion to the resurrection of Jesus, we left Bethlehem, but not before grabbing a cooke and some hot chocolate.

We all enjoyed our visit to Bethlehem. I am impressed by and thankful for the hundreds of volunteers who make this happen each year. From those who play the parts to those who build and break down the sets to those who made sure we heard the gospel, this is a huge event. I appreciated how each stop on the journey added a piece to the puzzle of God’s Law, our sin, and the Christmas gift of salvation in the birth of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. I got to be a part of the Christmas story along with shepherds, priests, Pharisees, merchants, soldiers, children and tax collectors.

The journey seemed shorter than my previous experience. My grandson like the sheep, cow and donkey best of all, but did appreciate the real live baby Jesus, too. He elected not to have his picture taken with a Roman soldier. (Oh, and there was no camel; that must have been a different live nativity at another church.)

Afterwards, we estimated that it would take at least three hundred volunteers to make this happen. They must begin planning the summer before. And I’ll bet every single one loves being a part of this. If you are in the Daytona Beach area, I encourage you to stop by and “walk through” Bethlehem.

 

 

The evolution of Christmas music at home.

Even thought we didn’t decorate our Christmas tree until Christmas Eve while was growing up, we did begin playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. After telling Alexa to play jazz Christmas music on iHeart radio, I’m marveling at how much the listening experience has changed.

Currently, I’m streaming “The Christmas Song” performed by a jazz steel drum ensemble. Shazam doesn’t even know who they are.

45rpmMy earliest memories of Christmas music involved a stack of 45s played on a small record player with a built in speaker. I am still amazed by the mechanics of the record changer. A stack of 9 records might give you half-an-hour of non-stop music. Then you flipped the stack over to listen to all the other sides. Songs I remember include Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, Silent Night, Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer, and Frosty the Snowman.

Next song is “Do you hear what I hear?” played by a solo jazz guitarist that Shazam also cannot identify.

consoleSometime in the 60’s my parents bought a console stereo system, a five foot long piece of furniture with built-in speakers, receiver and turntable. My mom and dad bought a number of 33 LPs, which provided multiple-tracks per side, about 45 minutes of music per side. We could load a stack of those and have hours of music in the house before we had to flip them over. The label “hi fidelity” on the outside of the console meant it was state of the art for the time, but in reality not much better than what we had before. Mostly just louder. The albums I most remember include “The Many Moods of Christmas” by the Robert Shaw Chorale, a Perry Como Christmas album, and a narrated LP of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and the b-side “Rudolph’s Second Christmas.”

Next song streaming: “I’ll be home for Christmas” by vocalist Brian McKnight.

Around this same time, some FM stations began playing non-stop Christmas music on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We would play that station non-stop for those two days, exposing us to much more music.

Next song: “We with you a Merry Christmas” by Terry Wollman’s ensemble.

I never acquired any 8-tracks, so cassettes were next. It must have been after I got married that we got a stereo receiver with a cassette deck. It certainly was a lot easier to accumulate, store and take along cassettes filled with Christmas music. Until it broke or stretched or twisted or got stuck. From those days I remember Canadian Brass, Amy Grant, and The Carpenters.

Next song: Louis Armstrong, “Zat You, Santa Claus?”

By the time we came to Florida, most of our music had migrated to compact disks. These were great because you could easily skip to whatever song you wanted. Our collection included Stan Kenton Christmas, more Canadian Brass, and many different vocalists. We still have some of our CDs around, somewhere, but don’t play them very often. If I do pull them out, I have to play them on our DVD player. Cause we stream most of our music.

Current song: “Angels We Have Heard on High” by Caribbean Jazz Project.

hero_01Depending on where I am, I’ll go to iHeart radio, Pandora, Spotify or Amazon Prime to stream any artist or genre of Christmas music I’m in the mood for, on a phone, iPad, computer or Echo. And the music will play forever if you let it. Youtube has plenty to choose from, including live performances to watch. Netflix offers a four-hour fire with Christmas music in the background.

Current song: an old recording of “Winter Wonderland” by Ella Fitzgerald.

Plus, for any song that plays, I can use Shazam to find the lyrics, play a video, and buy it for myself if I want to add it to a device.

It really is amazing how much music has both changed and stayed the same. So many of the tunes are classic. So many arrangements are new, making the variety almost endless.

Current song: “Let it snow” by Wynton Marsalis.

The least-evolved part of Christmas music in my home is pulling out my guitar to sing with my kids, both a generation ago and now with my grandchildren. Never gets old!

One more: “Feliz Navidad” by Spyro Gyra. 

I don’t want to have to go there.

Bunnell - Recent A_largeI had to go to the county courthouse today, more formally known as the Kim Hammond Justice Center. My name wasn’t on the docket or anything like that. I just had to drop off an affidavit at the clerk’s office to get my name back on the list of premarital counseling providers in the area.

I’d been there before, and we don’t live in a large, densely populated area, but it is still an imposing and uncomfortable place to go. There is no parking near the front, so you have to make a long walk up the brick walkway to get to the front door. Of course, you empty your pockets, walk through the metal detector and get scanned by the officers on duty. Long empty hallways stretch to either side as you decide which way you need to walk.

When I finally reached the clerk of courts office at the end of the hall, another long line of attended desks behind glass greeted me. I picked one and stated my business, only to be called to another station. The person glanced at my paper, said, “OK, you’re all set,” and I was on my way.

On the way out I wondered, did they design this place to send the message, “You really don’t want to have to come here”? Was it designed to impress or intimidate? It is meant to be in its own way a deterrent? If so, it served it’s purpose today. I don’t want to have to go there!

 

I’m pretty sure this is bad soil.

gabriel-jimenez-241711

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

How much of ministry is throwing seed onto bad soil? I know that sounds like a strange question. But it came to mind the other night after I spent some time with a couple I really hoped would listen, learn and get their lives together as we started premarital counseling. But I doubt this will happen. I have this sinking feeling that the seed isn’t going to grow.

OK, just bear with me. Keep your sermons to yourself. These are just my thoughts. I know nothing is impossible for God. I know all things are possible for God. I know that his word always accomplishes what he intends. I know we’ve all got issues. But I also know that three of the four soils in Jesus’ parable won’t yield a crop no matter how good the seed or the sower is.

You remember the story. A guy is planting seed. More like throwing it everywhere. Some seed falls on the path. Nothing grows. Birds eat the seed. Other seeds falls on rocky soil. No deep roots. Withers and dies in the heat. Still other seed falls among the weeds. Gets choked out by the faster growing weeds. Finally some falls on good soil and grows.

So does this mean that seventy-five percent of the time, preaching and teaching the word won’t yield much result? Does this mean that preaching and teaching only sinks in one out of every four people?

I’ve been reading a lot of Jeremiah lately. I’m glad I didn’t get that call. His call documents laid out the harsh reality that his congregation wouldn’t listen to him and would eventually die or go into exile. Nice. After some of his sermons they beat him up and put him into stocks.

OK, I don’t have it that bad, so stop complaining, right? Plus, what do I know about farming? That is, what makes me so sure I can size up a person and know they are a rocky road or a weed field?

Or — and I don’t like this possibility — maybe I’m doing this because I’m the one who needs to listen and learn from this. Maybe I need to step in a big pile to understand what some folks deal with every day. Perhaps I need to just chill, suck it up, and do my job.

OK, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Gone. Just gone.

tegan-mierle-259584Jesus tells the story of a shepherd that leaves a flock of 99 to go in search of one sheep who wandered, who went missing, who didn’t show up for role call. The point is, God cares deeply about the lost. But does a real, live, genuine shepherd do that? Does that one sheep matter that much?

I’m thinking probably not. I’m thinking that he might not even notice losing one out of one hundred. A 1% loss n our investment? We wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.

But I find that I do fret, lose sleep, and puzzle over one family that suddenly vanishes from church life. For the purpose of these thoughts, it is a person who held several leadership positions in the church. It wasn’t a gradual disappearance. It was a sudden here today, gone tomorrow event. In the span of just one week — gone.

Yes, of course, I tried to find out what was going on. I called. I texted. I emailed. I wrote two letters, put them in envelopes, affixed a stamp to each one and mailed them at the post office. I had a face-to-face conversation with the person, and never found out why they no longer came to worship, carried our their responsibilities, participated in church life or even responded to my attempts to reach out to them. Other folks from the church reached out to them. Phone calls. Emails. Conversations. The response? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nil.

OK, so when people began to stop following Jesus, he didn’t overreact. He simply asked his disciples, “Are guys leaving, too?” I guess he knew it would happen. He knew that everyone would abandon him. He knew that he wouldn’t win the popular vote or a popularity contest.

So why does it bug me so much? Is it because of all the time and energy I put into that family? Is it because of my own ego and wanting to see the church grow because that makes me look like a good pastor? Is it because I overestimated their commitment? Is it because of something else entirely unrelated to me?

IDK. I have no idea. I guess the only thing I know is that in good or in bad, it’s not about me. It’s about Jesus. He is the one I should pursue, think about, and talk about. He’s the boss.

I can’t remember where I read it, but it is a good reminder of what this is all about. Jesus wasn’t a cowboy, driving his herd into heaven. He was a shepherd, leading his flock.

That’s all I’m trying to do.

Paper airplane and cootie catchers.

Picture1So here’s what I learned in bible class yesterday. I am teaching a class on Dr. Howard Hendrick’s book Teaching to Change Lives, previously titled The Seven Laws of Teaching. It is part of our ongoing effort to quip our bible class leaders to become better teachers.

Yesterday’s class on “the Law of Education” encouraged teachers to involve students in learning, teaching them how think and learn rather than just simply sitting there hopefully absorbing material. I used a suggested exercise and gave each person a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Each was to draw a picture on the paper, make something with the paper, or do something with the paper to symbolize the statement “How does a person learn?” I knew it would be a challenging exercise, but I was surprised at how effective a lesson it was.

There were as many creative ideas as there were people in the room, everything from a paper airplane to a “cootie catcher” to stick people learning in some way. The exercise actually primed their creativity for further exercises in the class, and will probably be the thing they most remember about that hour.

So what did I learn? Give my classes more things like that to do! I’ve done it from time to time, but it may be worth adding to every class. One activity per lesson each week is well worth the time spent to encourage discussion, questions and creativity.

Grandpa Douthwaite

Me with pop and grannyOne of my favorite (but not too difficult) trivia questions to ask those who know me as William Douthwaite III is, “What is my grandfather’s name?” Without too much thought you should be able to come up with “William” as the correct answer.

My only memory of William Douthwaite, Sr. (whom my dad called “Pop,” and who died in 1959), is seeing him in bed at his Ridley Park apartment, with a glass straw in his drink. I’ve never seen a glass straw since, although I know they are available. If this is a reliable memory, it is my earliest, since I was at best two years old.

William, Sr. was a carpenter. My dad kept some of his tools in a homemade toolbox for years. My grandfather had seven children, of whom my father, William, Jr., was the youngest. And that is about all the information I have about him.

I believe this picture is my baptism day, September 29, 1957, one of the few when all my grandparents were together at the same time. He would have been 80 years old in this picture. I have not found any other pictures of me with William, Sr.

My friend Richard, who did a little ancestry work for me has been able to trace the Douthwaite name to Richard Douthwaite who was born in 1580 in Warcop, Lancanshire, England. Before that, the records are spotty and uncertain.

 

Grandpa Golcher

three guysThis is one of the few pictures I have of my dad, grandfather (my mom’s dad) and myself.  I think I am about three years old here. How many pictures will my grandchildren have with their grandfathers? Hundreds and hundreds.

Grandpa Julius Golcher is somewhat of an enigma. When a friend who knew his way around genealogy attempted to do a family tree on my mom’s side, he could go no further back than Julius’ parents in Costa Rica. Which is interesting, because we were always told he was from Argentina.

As you can see from the picture, he wore one of those old wired hearing aids. He worked as a machinist in Philadelphia, but was placed in the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry at some point, suffering from a form of Parkinson’s disease attributed to the Spanish influenza epidemic of the early 20th century.

I do remember that he primarily spoke Spanish, which means that there must be a compelling story of how he met his wife Mary Fox, my mom’s mom. She immigrated from England and worked as a nanny in Philadelphia, which is interesting because we were always told she was a governess, but census records tell a different story. Ancestry on her side only goes back as far as a lighthouse somewhere along the North Sea. (There are too many “Mary Foxes” from that time frame to know which branch of the tree to follow.) She came to America with two sisters, Peg and Elsie. I knew her much better, and will write about her in a future post.

Somehow that unlikely couple got together and had three daughters, but I’m not sure there is anyone left who knows that story. They raised their family in a row home on Rosalie Street in the Olney section of northeast Philadelphia.

Me with grandpa golcher

Here we are in NE Phila when I was 15 months old.

That’s all I’ve got on Grandpa Golcher. But I am pretty sure that my brother and sister and I all got our thick heads of hair from him.