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!

 

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Take your time

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This comment caught my eye the other day when I quickly glanced through some social media: “Our Christmas tree lights are on, Christmas candles are lit, presents are about all wrapped; it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

When I read that, I felt sad. These words were written on November 30. This person made it sound like Christmas was a task to be completed, and the earlier the better. When did the goal become “get ‘er done?”

What about the places we’ll go to see the lights, hear the music, sing the carols, and eat the food? What about the travel plans we’ll make to be with family and friends? What about the memories yet to create, the laughter to be heard, the food to be prepared, the stories to be told, and the photos we’ll capture as we spend the time together?

Rather than a destination, Christmas is a journey. (Spoiler alert: I’m going sound theological here.) It’s the journey of the Creator to his creation, the journey of a couple to have the baby, the journey of the angels to announce the news, the journey of the shepherds to see the Savior and their return to tell about what they saw.

I, for one, don’t want to get there too quickly. There is so much to see, hear, and experience on the way! And I don’t want it to be over too quickly, either. Christmas has a wonderful “finish” that lingers in our hearts and minds, enduring flavors of hope, love and joy that are meant to carry us through the ups and downs of life.

 

A wonderful, beautiful, minor key.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

At noon and then again this evening at our midweek Advent worship services, I realized that all the hymns I picked out were in a minor key.

Songs in a minor key sound sad, melancholy, foreboding and desperate. And yet, I love the minor keys. They sound so real, passionate and gutsy. They don’t soar like major keys, lifting our hearts, but dive deeply, into the depths of our souls.

Really? At Christmas? The “most wonderful time of the year” which is designed to be “merry and bright?” Whoa, big guy, it’s not Christmas yet. It’s Advent. It’s still a time of reflection, repentance and even desperation. Good thing. We need help.

Like an endless line of dominoes, those in the public eye are falling to allegations of inappropriate sexual misconduct. A seemingly endless obituary of innocent victims shot at concerts, in schools and on the street floods our eyes with tears and minds with fears. Smartphones connect us with more people than ever, yet we sit home lonelier than ever. Rockets take us closer to Mars, and bring nuclear weapons closer to our homes.

Jesus steps into that world. He was condemned for inappropriate contact with people you weren’t supposed to be near. He was innocent, yet condemned and executed. Surrounded by crowds, he ended up on the cross alone. He spoke of leaving this world, which was coming to a violent end.

Anyone see a connection here? First, there’s nothing new under the sun. We’ve been struggling with these issues for a long, long time. Second, we can’t seem to fix the problems. They keep coming up over and over again. Third, our fears of the end are legitimate. This world will not last forever.

Thank God! This is not what He intended, nor what we were created for. We need a new heaven and a new earth. Soon. Churches like ours that observe Advent pray long and hard for that. We know that is our only hope.

But at least we have hope. We have something to look forward to. As a musician I know that if you raise the third just one half step, you will feel the lift of a major chord, and it never fails to thrill me. I love those hymns, so close, so achingly close to a resolution, a major key, and new life.

Thanksgiving memories

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Photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash

I’m surprised that I really don’t have a lot of Thanksgiving memories. I really like the holiday, especially preparing and consuming the food. I had to really work to come up with memorable moments from the past.

In high school, the last football game of the season was played on Thanksgiving morning, also marking the end of marching band season. We always played a non-league game against Interboro, a tough opponent from a few towns away. After graduating, that was the game you attended to catch up with all your friends who were home for break.

The only time in my life I remember going out for supper on Thanksgiving was when we went to visit my wife’s Aunt Dot who lived in King of Prussia, just outside of Philadelphia. I’m pretty sure we drove down from Connecticut that year and met my in-laws there. My daughter Katie found it hysterical that her name was “dot.” We went to the mall, the largest in the area at that time, the next day to people watch more than shop.

My Thanksgivings while I was attending seminary were spent at my in-laws home in Columbus, IN. The first time I had just finished Greek and went with my classmate, dorm-mate and future brother-in-law Jeff, who, if I remember correctly, had a pretty nice looking sister who was in her last year at Indiana University. A year later I got to return, now dating his sister but not yet engaged. I think that is when I wrote my first poem for her. (I am sure she has it somewhere.) I don’t remember going there when I was in my final year, but I’m sure we did. Lisa would have been about six months pregnant with Adam that year.

Last year was supposed to be Thanksgiving at our house, but we had a change of plans. With Isaac (grandchild #3) only six weeks old, we decided to take a drive to Dallas to spend thanksgiving with him and his family. The year before I had decided to have our Thanksgiving worship the Sunday before, freeing up the week for travel, and it paid off. After worship on Sunday, we hit the road, spent the night in Pensacola, and arrived in Dallas on Monday night. Three solid days in Dallas, got to hear my son preach and did lots of grandparent stuff.

I do remember that Thanksgiving worship was on Thanksgiving Day when we were in Urbandale, Iowa. Ugh. Never did that before. It was always the night before in Ridley Park, Connecticut and Florida. But I wasn’t the boss, so it was what it was.

I remember all my trumpet descants for the Thanksgiving hymns, too. I may not be playing them, but I sing ’em on the last verse. Still got that tenor range.

OK, I guess I did have a few memories. One of these days, I’ll look at my journals — I’ve got decades of them. That ought to stimulate my memory.

White or wheat?

downloadFourth year of seminary education. Married. One in the oven. Time to get a job to make ends meet. Subway is taking applications. Why not?

I was hired at a store on the south side of Ft. Wayne, about twenty minutes from our tiny (before tiny homes were fashionable) home. Back then, the menu was simpler. Only two kinds of bread: white or wheat. Two kinds cheese: American or Swiss. No cookies. No toasted subs. Old school. We didn’t wear gloves, just washed our hands a lot. Cleaning the bathrooms was as gross though. Some things never change.

Since I was about ten years older than most of the crew, I often closed the store at 2 am. One night, just before I locked the front door, a man came in, pointed a long barrel revolver at my head and said, “Give me the money.” Since we dropped the cash about every half hour or so, there was less than $20 in the drawer. Impatiently he demanded, “Just give me the whole thing.” I handed him the money tray and followed his instructions to lay face down on the floor. After a few moments of silence, I locked the front door and called 911 and the store manager.

I was pretty shaken up by the time I got home around 4 am. The assistant store manager was more upset that the thief took the money tray than he was about the stolen cash. I worked a few more shifts after than, but as call day and graduation approached, we were making plans to move…somewhere. We didn’t know where our first call would be for a few months.

I’m always nice to workers at Subway. I get to do what I do today because of people just like them!

Do I have to “like” my neighbor?

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Photo by Gleren Meneghin on Unsplash

This is my response to a question recently posed to me. It came via email: ” I know I have to love my neighbor. But do I have to like them?”

That’s a tough one. The phrase “love your neighbor” is in the Old Testament law, is affirmed by Jesus and later quoted by Paul. It’s all over the Bible.

In the context of Leviticus 19:18, it’s all about provision, honesty, integrity and justice for our “neighbor.” Vengeance or nastiness are off the table.

When that phrase, “love your neighbor” appears in Paul’s letters or James, it supports the commandments which protect life, relationships, property and reputation. The motivation for those laws is the other person, not God.

Jesus mentions it to those who wanted to be righteous and obey the law. His words makes us realize that it’s not just about the rules, but the person.

But the go to passage is probably the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus told to those who wanted to be righteous and wanted to know who their neighbor was (Luke 10:25-37). Here, the neighbor is obviously the one who showed mercy. If one were to imagine the aftermath of this story, I doubt that the Samaritan and the victim became good friends and went out for coffee. Love for the neighbor was the action of having mercy and meeting a need. Feelings are not mentioned. Just the compassion.

That doesn’t let us off the hook, though. Hatred and anger make us murders and fifth-commandment law breakers. I’ve struggled with this. I can barely talk to my neighbors across the street with civility. They are my second-worst neighbors ever! When they tried to sell their home a few years ago, I was, quite frankly, pretty excited. But they didn’t sell. Boo.

First, I believe people like this in our lives are there to remind us of how hard we are to love and how amazing Jesus’ capacity to love is. I mean, think about it. Jesus loves me.

Second, I can beat myself up for not loving my neighbor or I can flee for refuge to his infinite mercy. I know he would have me do the latter. Part of the reason Israel went into exile was because they had turned away from God and their neighbor as the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. But that was to teach them that God’s way was better. I want to learn from them. I’ll turn to him.

Third, there are a lot of people in the bible who don’t get along with each other. The disciples fought among themselves, Paul wasn’t especially fond of Peter, Paul didn’t like Mark either, and Jews and Samaritans generally ignored each other. It’s the rule, not the exception. Two thousand years into the history of the Christian Church, we still can’t get along with each other. This is what we and every generation are like.

So can we just ignore our aggravating neighbors? No. Can we avoid them. No. Can we hate them? No. Can we love them? Yes. But only with a lot of help! We only love because he first loved us.

I believe the answer is to simply be obedient. Most of the time I don’t feel like doing what God wants me to do. I do it because I know that his way is best for me. We walk by the Spirit, not the feelings or desires of our flesh.

Who knows, maybe God will change your feelings toward that person?

Snack mix

DSC_0108There is a lot I have forgotten from my years at the seminary, but one memory that continually resurfaces is one of the jobs I had to pay the bills my last year there: making snack mix. In the days before prepackaged Chex snack mix appeared on grocery store shelves, you had two choices. You could make it at home, which plenty of families did. Or, at least in northeast Indiana, you could but it bulk in a grocery story, who got it from a friend of mine who actually owned a little factory that made one product, snack mix.

It wasn’t especially hard work. If I remember correctly, one team opened case after case of boxes of Chex cereal and Cheerios, carefully slitting open the inner bag so it poured out just right. The second team mixed together a precise recipe of the cereal, pretzels, oil, lots of garlic, and a few peanuts in large bins. The next team would bake the mix in large aluminum trays. Some days you worked the final step, bagging up the cooled mix and boxing it up for shipment to several grocery chains.

It was a popular product. We made tons and tons of snack mix. I’m pretty sure my wife was making it right up to the day our first child was born. (I suppose that’s why it has always been one of his favorite snacks!) I think we got to bring some home to eat. But I know we always came home smelling like garlic. No threat from vampires in our home!

So when someone asks, “What do you have to do to become a pastor?” there are stories just like this, jobs of every shape and size that helped you get through seminary years that were lean in resources but rich in theology. I owe a lot to the guy who came up with the idea of making and selling “mix” so that we (and a few other seminarians) could earn a few bucks and serve the church.

Rules and rules and more rules

no-smoking.jpgA week ago my wife and I were sitting in front of a crackling fire in a wonderful 100 year old cabin in the mountains of northern Virginia. The fall colors were at their peak and the cool air so worth the long drive from Florida. The one thing that put a damper on a picture perfect evening was a large red “No Smoking” sign prominently displayed in the living room. Just in case you missed that one, another one hung over the front door. And that’s all it took to suck a whole bunch of charm out of the room.

I wondered, “What have people done to this place that makes a sign like that necessary?” In addition, a twelve-page rental agreement pretty much forbid everything a tenant might do, from drugs and alcohol to smoking and parties to long showers and too many flushes. I’ve stayed in other places with no other rules than “please take out a load of trash.” So I wonder what previous renters did to make such regulations necessary?

Yes, I know the answer to my question. Rather than taking out trash, the guests trashed the place. The cistern ran dry and the septic got clogged. A dirty bathroom and a sink full of dishes greeted the cleaning crew. Even though you are extra careful who you rent to and clearly state the rules, it’s hard work to open up your place to total strangers. Airbnb, VTBO and other services have been a great resource for us. But it only takes one bad renter to spoil it for so many others.

We’re not perfect, but we tried to leave the place in better condition than when we arrived. I’ll try and fix small things that might need repair. I hope I can be a renter who gives the next ones a better experience.

 

Nativities are alive and well

nativity collageAs I wandered through a Ten Thousand Villages store in Harrisonburg, VA, I was struck by the number of nativities for sale, crafted by artisans from all over the world. Some were made of rocks, others had been formed from clay, and yet others crocheted. Some were tiny, no bigger than a golf ball. Others hang from mobiles. Some were designed to be Christmas tree ornaments. Others were meant to be handled and played with.

I was struck by the reality that in what is called a post-modern, post-Christian world, where we are told nones, atheists and the de-churched comprise a larger and larger portion of our nation, nativities are still in demand. There is still plenty of room among snowmen and Santas for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds with sheep, and wise men with gifts. I was fascinated and delighted to see that this form of the sacred has not been pushed out of view by the secular.

I believe we can learn something from this. While it’s rarely productive to ram Jesus down people’s throats with threats of eternal damnation, it’s not so hard to slip him into craft fairs, holiday displays, and winter festivals. This is probably why Jesus didn’t come on the clouds with power the first time around. He came as a baby, slipped into the world virtually unnoticed, and found a place in a hostile environment.

That’s the seed we plant and water at this time of the year. God handles the growth.