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.

 

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Allegations, protection, and common sense

D145_250_179_0004_600Suddenly the whole Mike Pence strategy of not being with a woman who’s not your wife has a whole lot of value. Initially he was ridiculed, but now, as celebrities, politicians and news personalities fall one by one to claims of sexual misconduct, the wisdom of setting and maintaining such boundaries makes a whole lot of sense.

I was taught very early on by some very wise mentors to never put myself in a compromising position. Don’t ever be with a child or young person alone and don’t meet behind closed doors (especially secretly locked doors) alone with a woman who is not your wife. When we designed our new church building, we made sure there were windows in all the doors. When I meet with a woman, I make sure someone else is around. When I’m with kids, it’s always in a group, or with parents present. I am even cautious when going out to visit women twenty, thirty or more years older than me! All it takes is one accusation, and you are fighting for your reputation, ministry and life.

These are not new ideas. In many circles these safeguards have been required practices for years (Cf. Good News Clubs, Boy Scouts, preschools). As allegations of sexual misconduct make daily news headlines, I can’t help but wonder how they didn’t know. Did they really think they would just get away with it? Were they oblivious to the potention dangers? No one saw this coming?

I am thankful for those who were watching out for me, our children, and other adults. Being safe and above reproach isn’t so hard to do. Just have someone else around on site or in the office. Protect yourself and them.

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.

Trust, old marinara and wet dog.

wet dogAs I reflect on last night’s confirmation class, I can’t get a couple of the student’s comments out of my mind.

The first came in the context of discussing the eighth commandment. I asked, “Do you know anyone with a really bad reputation.” Everyone shook their head yes, but one added some detail. “Everyone knows this kid is a liar, a thief and dishonest. But I trust him.” Every head turned and stared. “No really, he has my back.” Interesting choice of friends.

The other came in response to the casual question, “So how’s school?” “Ugh, I hate culinary arts! The classroom smells like a combination of old marinara and wet dog.” I’m familiar with both smells, but never thought to combine them.

Teaching confirmation class for seventh and eighth graders (and this year, a few in high school), is a unique experience for me and the young people. Altogether we met about fifty times over two years, getting to know a lot about each other. I get to know them better than many of those who joined the congregation as adults. They also get to know me better than most who attend worship. We develop a unique bond during this time.

s-Market-MarinaraThat relationship means so much. They may not remember everything I taught them. But they will know they can talk to me when life begins to happen, everything from graduations to children and beyond.

 

Christmas ‘ites

Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 1.36.13 PMMy grandson Elijah was spending the day with me while his mom was out shopping with my wife. One of our projects that day was putting up the Christmas tree. I just knew it would be a memorable moment when I plugged in the lights and he saw them for the first time. He’s been watching and waiting for Christmas “‘ites” for weeks. I was not disappointed. His delighted “Oh-Oh” still makes me laugh out loud.

What is it about Christmas ‘ites that excites and delights people of every age? We’ll stop to look at house with simple candles in the window as well as those covered with thousands of colored bulbs. We’ll go out of our way to drive by those homes that are lit up in creative ways. We’ll climb ladders, walk roofs and wrap trees to light up our homes and yards. We’ll got for walks at night, as dark lonely streets suddenly come to life with the rhythmic blinking of strings of lights. We’ll stop and pause, on foot or in our cars, just to gaze at a brightly lit home we never really noticed before. Unsightly strings hanging from eaves take on magical shapes and designs when darkness comes and all that can be seen is the light.

Just as a starry sky on a clear cool night reminds us of that night out side of Bethlehem lit up by a multitude of the heavenly host, perhaps a simple string of lights takes us back to that earthly moment of heavenly glory. And who wouldn’t like some of that as we pray and wait for the brightness of a new day in a world where there is far too much darkness.

Just be there.

IMG_3022It’s early. Really early. It’s dark. Really dark. It’s quiet. Really quiet.

It’s about 6:20 am on a Sunday morning as I pull into the church parking lot to open up, turn off the alarm, turn on a few lights, and get my head and heart into the worship that day. I hear the AC units kick on, and I am thankful they are working today. I unlock all the doors, thankful for all who will enter that day. I turn on all the lights, but quickly dim them all except for those in the chancel. And then in front of an empty room, I preach. I preach my sermon for the first time that day.

I’ve been working on the sermon all week. But it doesn’t come alive until I speak it aloud. My words echo through an empty sanctuary, but in my mind I see all of you who will soon be sitting in those pews. I know where you sit. I know where to look for you. And I am hoping that the word will touch you in the same way it has touched me in the past week.

It’s good to prepare. It’s good to practice. But it’s not really preaching until you are there. It’s so different when I see your face and watch your reaction. It’s not really a sermon until I see you struggle to hold back a tear. Or a giggle. Or look and me wondering, “How did you know?” Or glare at me thinking, “Oh yeah?” Or shake your head in disbelief: “I can’t believe you just said that!”

It’s a sermon when I can tell I’ve touched a nerve. Or pushed a button. Or put my foot in my mouth. Or given you something to hold on to when you thought you were going to fall. Or made you laugh and realize that you’ve been taking it all much too seriously.

I can prep, I can practice and I can preach. But it’s nothing unless you are there. That’s probably the best gift you could ever give your pastor. Just be there. React, respond, repent and rejoice with him (me) because God’s Word is just as amazing, powerful and life-changing as ever!

The snowmen are back.

IMG_7929When Eli and I were decorating the tree yesterday, I noticed that my collection of ornaments included eight snowmen. We haven’t bought any ornaments for ourselves, so all of these were given to us by someone sometime in the past. Try as I might, I can’t remember where any of them came from. But since the snowmen hold eight seats in our congress of decorations, I thought I would make a few observations.

First of all, they are all bundled up. Why? I would think that a snowman would revel in the cold. Yet the snowman uniform includes a hat, scarf and mittens. I figure they don’t need them to keep warm, so they must wear them to look “cool.”

Second, snowmen are happy. They are all grinning. Obviously they enjoy their seasonal jobs.  They only really work about four weeks a year. Plus, this bunch gets to live and work where everyone else vacations — Florida! Life is good for these snowmen.

Third, they have found their way into the celebration of Christmas. Frosty the Snowman, their patron saint, doesn’t appear in song until 1950, but scores a television special in 1969 to take his place in the highly competitive American Christmas landscape.

I haven’t made a snowman in over twenty-one years, since we’ve been in Florida. But the snowman is no less popular in the sunshine state than he was in the north. Our tree is testimony to that.

 

 

 

He knew we’d want to play with this.

IMG-7920I knew I’d be watching my two-year-old grandson Elijah for a few hours today while my daughter and wife did a little shopping. Before he arrived, I set out our little Playmobile nativity out on the porch.

From the moment he saw it he was delighted! He exclaimed, “This is perfect!” And then he picked up the baby from the manger and announced, “He’s awake!” He pointed out the donkey, camel, and sheep. Then, spotting the magi’s treasure chests, his eyes got big and he burst out with “Presents!” We got a full ninety minutes of play from this season’s first encounter with the cast of characters from Luke 2 and Matthew 2!

I believe our all-knowing Father knew that his children would delight in this hands-on telling and re-enactment of Christ’s birth. I can’t prove it, but I would contend he purposely chose the first-century, Roman empire, Bethlehem, virgin and carpenter setting because he knew it would capture our imagination, our hearts, and our souls.

I also believe it is therapeutic to sit and play with a nativity, preferably with kids. The holidays aren’t always the easiest times to navigate. You may be dealing with distance, death or divorce. There may be family conflicts, financial worries, unrealistic demands and unmet expectations, But when you sit down to play with a nativity, much of that fades behind the reminders of God’s promises, faithfulness, and presence. He shows up in the lives of real, ordinary people just like us, to walk us through guilt, sorrow, doubt, fear, pain, or whatever we’re dealing with.

That’s what it’s all about. Even a child knows that. I guess Jesus was right. You really need to be a child.

 

 

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.