Thursday, December 30, 2010
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
That same year my wife was directing the choir—or trying to. The Choir had no robes and so we thought it would be great to get those “Sing and Sew” outfits and let the Choir make their own robes. They were so proud of their efforts and so that same oval-shaped Christmas, the Choir would wear their robes for the first time. My wife had instructed the women not to wear long dangly earrings or necklaces because they would take away from the robes. So that Sunday morning they marched by the beginning-to-sag wreath and sure enough the women had obeyed my wife’s order about the jewelry. But nobody had mentioned hats. And robed Thelma marched in with the biggest fuscia hat you’ve ever seen. Young and foolish, I was in a snit that Christmas. Looking back I think Jesus just might have approved of our efforts.
I could write a whole chapter on Advent wreaths. No liturgists that I know of have written a piece on “How to Make Sure You Get Candles that will Light.” I don’t know how many years one and sometimes more of the candles just would not light. The most heart-breaking Christmas Eve was the year a family came down the darkened aisle at the beginning of the service with a lighted candle. They had been selected to light the Advent wreath as the choir snag softly in the balcony: “This Little Light of Mine.” All went well until the daughter was given the candle to light the wreath. It didn’t work. She tried and tried. Her parents whispered to each other and then to her. She tried again. Finally in desperation she blew out the candle, threw it on the floor, said a loud, “Damn” and stalked off as her family still stood at the front. How’s that for openers on Christmas Eve?
One year we put candles down all the aisles and as one man started to move from the pew to the front to take Communion he knocked over the candled and it fell to the floor and he stomped and stomped until he put it out.
14,000 gay members of the armed forces have been forced to leave the service because of the old policy. Of course there has been much opposition to this new ruling. Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said, “In the middle of a military conflict, is not the time to do this.” Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma stated, “This isn’t broke…it is working well.” Far right church groups are saying this is the just another step toward Armageddon. Senator John McCain issued a strong statement about how our troops in battle will suffer and this action would hurt our efforts in the war.
We’ve been here before. Blacks have served in the military since before the Revolution. But always they were segregated. One of the issues in the Civil War was if slaves should fight for their freedom. The film, “Glory” told of the courage of those black soldiers that fought for the Union. There was a strong movement to desegregate the military during the Roosevelt days of the Second World War but he demurred. But President Truman in an Executive order in July of 1948 officially desegregated the military. Remember that this was six years before the public schools were officially desegregated. Which means that this executive order signed by President Truman was as enormously courageous move. It would take two years before the policy was fully implemented. Opponents argued that insurrection would ensue. The morale of the soldiers would be seriously affected. This issue would cripple the war effort. None of these things happened.
Senator Joseph Lieberman who led to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” said that this ban undermined the integrity of the military by forcing troops to lie. What a waste, he said that we had hounded our thousands who should still be serving our country.
I talked to a gay friend of mine some time ago. “Don’t you get discouraged having to stay closeted. Not being able to say who you are at work. Not even using your hospital insurance since you are HIV positive and you afraid that your bosses will find out.” He told me it was hard but he felt that a sea change was beginning to occur. I will live to say the day when these attitudes change.” I wondered if he was too optimistic. But we know that in the last few years we have seen a change of attitude in the public toward homosexuality.
Even after this ruling change will come slowly as did our attitudes toward race. As we witness the invectives toward our first black President we know that our work is far from finished. Mr. Obama declared while he was running for President that he would change this discriminatory policy in the military. After all the difficulties that have rained down on his head of late, I doubted this would ever happen. And yet—this week we will begin to put aside yet another discriminatory act.
Gay people want what everyone wants—simply to have the basic rights that our constitution promises every citizen. We have not gotten there—but we are on the road. And this Christmas gift by our government is a very large present to a segment of our population that has felt discrimination every day they live. This not-so-simple act makes one more step in keeping faith once more with that phrase in our Constitution: “liberty and justice for all.”
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid."
High up on our Christmas tree, near the top, if you look closely you may see it. If you don’t squint your eyes and look carefully you’ll probably miss it entirely. I’m talking about the star.
It may be the tiniest ornament on the tree. The little star is probably an inch and a half in diameter. The star was made in the church kitchen by a little girl and her Sunday school teacher over forty years ago in Southside Virginia.
Every year, without fail she breezes into the house with her own two daughters. After lugging in suitcases, pillows and presents she always moves toward the Christmas tree in the corner. She asks the same question year after year. “Where’s the star?” Christmas would not be Christmas without that star. I used to think it was a foolish request hanging on to that old homemade star. But I have changed my mind.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Two days later I stood in that long line at the Post Office to get stamps for the cards. My turn finally came and moved to another room to stamp the envelopes. But as I riffled through the cards a strange sensation came over me. As I stamped each envelope I began to notice the names. The cards went everywhere—some even to England. I was surrounded by a sea of faces. Some were addressed to solitary widows who lost their mates this year. One card went to a friend battling breast cancer in South Carolina. There was the card to be sent to my friend who lost her 40-year-old daughter. Not all the cards were sad. I smiled as I remembered other days and other times. My brother’s surprise 50th Anniversary Party with all of his friends and family there. My buddy who completely changed vocations and is happier than I have seen him in years. In that stack were the names of several staff members that I leaned on heavily to get our work done. There was a card to my old buddy in California that used to sit on my porch in the twilight and argue politics. There was the name of a couple that moved away this year that I still miss seeing. There were several cards in that stack were to old friends who go all the way back to the beginning of college and marriage and first jobs. I sent one card to my old friend who, never able to go to college herself, saved up her nickels and dimes from her job in a knitting mill to help me do what she could never do.
Our preacher preached on the Surprises of Christmas last Sunday. He challenged us to open our eyes and discover a touch of wonder somewhere we least expected. This is the essence of Christmas, finding in a manger on a cold, windy night a child that would change it all. Memory washed over and I remembered so many places we have lived, so many people that we have been blessed to know.
I placed the cards in the slot at the post office. And as I moved toward my car the Christmas surprise hit me. My life has been touched and changed by a multitude along the way. I remembered a quote that a member gave me as I was leaving my job at the church. I still have that yellowing paper under glass on my desk. The words come from the writer, Katherine Mansfield, “How hard,” she wrote, “it is to escape from places! However carefully one goes; they hold you—you leave bits of yourself fluttering on the fences, little rags and shreds of your very life.” I think Christmas came to me standing in a long line at the Post office, sorting through cards, placing stamps on envelopes. We never know when Christmas will walk down our street and knock on our door.
(This article appeared in the Op Ed section of The Birmingham News (AL.) December 25, 2010.)
Saturday, December 18, 2010
And then we turn to today’s scripture passage in Isaiah 11. One shall come, the writer says and wonderful things are promised: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Whatever your condition today—put down refuge, tower, tent, and the shelter of his wings next to them. The promise of Christmas is for us all.
Tuesday – December 21 – Psalm 66. “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.”Later on in this same Psalm the writer reminds his people: “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you brought us out to a spacious place.”
If that is not enough the Psalm ends: “But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.” As we begin to glimpse Bethlehem just a few days from our journey’s end—let us know deep in our hearts that here, under the shining star, surrounded by scruffy shepherds and kings from a foreign land we find the Psalmist is right. He really has done awesome deeds among us. Thanks be to God.
John Updike who left us just about two years ago once wrote, “Fear is the mood. People are bringing the shutters down from the attics and putting them back on their windows. Fences are appearing where children used to stray freely from backyard to backyard…Locksmiths are working overtime. Once we parked our cards with the keys dangling from the dashboard, And a dog could sleep undisturbed in the middle of the street. No more. Fear reigns.”
From then until now the demon fear is alive and well. Christmas says whatever your worry and anxiety and fear—God comes. Do not be afeared.
Thursday – December 23 – Psalm 146. 7-9. Strange isn’t it? Christmas first came to peasants, a poor couple, an obscure priest and his wife, shepherds of all people. The setting was a drafty barn where the animals stayed when the nights were cold. And today—we rich and middle class have captured Christmas. And the poor, outside the plate (and stained) glass windows feel shut out. Luke 4 told us what this Messiah would do. He opened the Isaiah scroll and read what his charge: “To bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4. ,18-19) His hearers were incensed.
Fighting for the rights of the poor has always been an uphill battle. Especially today. Christmas baskets may help some. Toys for Tots can certainly assure some child of a happy Christmas day. Yet Christmas never really will be fulfilled until we move over on our pews and welcome those to whom God first came.
Friday – December 24 – Isaiah 35. Remember the setting. They lived always on the edge of a wilderness. For forty years they have lived in a desert. And then—even after they made it to the Promised Land they fought the desert almost every day of their lives. The wind, the scorpions, the oppressive heat and the lack of enough water. Drought was an every-present fear. And here, Isaiah 35 says, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” But all this is prelude for the rest of this wonderful chapter. Read it for yourself. Put down today’s newspaper beside these wonderful words of promise.
I love the way that Buechner frames this promise: “A child on Christmas Eve…lives for the presents that he will open the next day, and in this sense we all live like children. There are so many presents to be opened—tomorrow, next month, next year—and in a way it is our looking forward to the presents that keeps us going. The unexpected friendship, the new job, seeing our names in the paper, falling in love, the birth of a child—all of these are presents that life gives us if we want them badly enough and if we are lucky enough, and in a way every new days is a present to be opened just as today was and tomorrow will be.”The waiting is almost over. Tomorrow is the day. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
happened. Only dull peace
sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
could find nothing better to do
than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
when a few farm workers and three
members of an obscure Persian sect
walked haphazardly by starlight
into the kingdom of heaven."
Sunday –December 12 – Hebrews 12.28a – “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks…”There is so little certainty in our world. Everything changes much too fast. Our parents grow old and die. Our children do not stay small. One day they are in the Nursery and the next day heading off to college. And we change. Tummies get bigger. We need glasses. We can’t hear quite as well as we did. Hair falls out or thins. And the terrain of our lives shifts—where is John or Don? Where are Margie and Herbert or Harriet and Tommy? Gone. We stood by their graves and said goodbye.
Old timers look out at a world of I-pods, I-phones, I-pads, Kindles, Internet and cell phones. Most of these were not with us 15 years ago. And in five years something new and shiny will render them obsolete. The ground shifts under our feet and it gets scary. And the old book says there is comfort and security in the shadow of God’s wings. In a changing world we reach out for something to hold on to. Most of our recipes don’t work. And this is the Christmas setting for 2010. The days grow shorter and the cold wind blows and we turn slowly toward Bethlehem. We’ve been here before—many times. The story is old and we know if by heart—but every year it comes to us fresh as if we meet it for the first time. Robert McAfee Brown and his family stood before the tiny crèche of the baby Jesus and his family. Here, he wrote, standing before the manger and the Christ child we find a small center of sanity in a wild and crazy world. So much changes—but Bethlehem remains reminding us that in this kind of a world there are wings in which we can find comfort. There really is a kingdom that will never be shaken.
Monday – December 13 – Psalm 41. “Happy are those who consider the poor, the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.” As we move another day closer to Christmas there are 14.8 million people in our country that are unemployed. Long-term unemployment—which means people who have been out of work longer than six months—total over six million of our citizens. To date Congress has refused to extend unemployment insurance any longer—or if they do there will certainly be something in the package for the well heeled. This is a scary time and for the unemployed this is especially a dark season.
I know one family who takes their children and grandchildren and find a family in their community in real need. Each Christmas they provide a Christmas for this family. Instead of giving gifts to each other—they reach out to someone needing help. I know. I know. Churches fill Christmas baskets and other groups provide Christmas dinner for the homeless. Critics say all these efforts are a drop in the bucket—and they are right. And yet I remember Mother Theresa’s words when a reporter asked her why she kept picking up little starving children in India. The task was seemingly endless. She simply said, “Young man, I do what I can, where I am, with what I have.” As Christmas comes we must all find some way “to consider the poor.”
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
The reason? No box is ever big enough to hold the real Christmas. Think back on the Christmases you remember. Those memories have little to do with Santa Claus or presents or decorations. If we recall our fondest Christmases; they never came wrapped in paper and tied with a ribbon . Our little four room house across from the mill Christmas came year after year despite whatever was going on in the world. Sometimes it was the war. Often money was tight. Some years there was grief and disappointment. Other years we had much to celebrate
But year after year we started early in December at the Hardware store where we bought little cans of gold and silver paint. We cut limbs with berries and greenery off the bushes. We sprayed them silver and gold. When they were dry we covered our mantles and made some kind of arrangement on the kitchen table. Next came the cakes. Our little kitchen was weighed down with flour and real coconuts and raisins and spices and vanilla flavoring and lots of eggs and a heaping mound of butter. Our maid, Nancy was instructed to go the liquor store after dark and furtively get the whiskey for the Fruitcakes. We shelled pecans all week long. We used a hammer to break open the coconuts. By Christmas day every spare surface would be covered with enough sweets to send anyone into a diabetic coma.
We always had a live Christmas tree that stretched all the way to the top of our little ceiling. My father chopped and hacked away at the base until it was finally ready for the living room. Next came the big colored lights, the ornaments. We whipped up Lux flakes in the kitchen and loaded the branches down with make-believe snow. Icicles covered the tree and the floor, too.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
When they told the story for the first time, Mark would write the first account of what happened in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and all the dusty miles in between. And Luke and Matthew would use Mark as a model as they wrote. And later John would write his own understanding of Jesus' life.
But when Mark wrote I find it interesting how he starts. First verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And he quotes the old prophets. One day, they would say, one day one shall come and things will be forever different. They dreamed of a time when the world would change and love would rule and hate would recede. A world in which they would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nations would not lift up sword against nation, and they would study war no more. There would come a time, they dreamed when the light would come into the world and the darkness could never put it out. And so, Mark says the real Christmas has nothing to do with stars and angels and mangers and wise men and shepherds. The real Christmas has nothing to do with I Saw Mama Kissin’ Santa Claus or wondering what in the world are we gonna get so and so.
Read Mark. Real Christmas he says in that first verse is good news. That’s what gospel means. Isaiah said that “One day I will send my messenger to prepare the way…” And so in Mark it begins with a messenger—John the Baptist. And this John appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So John would baptize Jesus, Jesus would call fishermen to follow him, he would teach and preach and heal. And then Mark says: “That evening at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons and the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”So, you see there at the beginning Santa Claus was not coming to town. The real Christmas was when John said the good news was a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
Good news is repentance? What does that mean? The word, repentance means change. It means newness. It means to turn 180 degrees. It means an about face. I am going this way and I suddenly turn completely around. It is like the Prodigal who left home, landed in a pig sty, no money, no place to go--he was as far down as he could go. And he said: And so, eating with the pigs, he said: I will arise and go to my Father and maybe, just maybe he will take me back as a hired hand. The boy turned completely around. He turned from his old, self-destructive ways. He went back home. He changed.
So this brings us to a second understanding of good news--the meaning of this gospel. The good news is that our sins are forgiven. And baptism is a sign that we can be cleansed. We really are forgiven and the slate is washed clean and we really do start all over again.
Some time ago I was invited back to the church I used to serve in Virginia. It was a Virginia homecoming, which meant people came back home who used to live there, filled the church on that one day and after the service we had wall to wall food for about two hours and then we all waddled back home and took our Mylanta and Tums and Alka Seltzer. And during that service one of the members introduced me before I preached. She said: While Mr. Lovette was here my husband didn't ever go to church. I'd load up the kids every Sunday and bring them by myself. He drank a lot. He drank up much of our money. Wasn't really mean to us but he just wasn't much of a Daddy or much of a husband. I asked Mr. Lovette to visit him and he started doing that. And one Sunday my hsband came to church. And about a year later he walked down the aisle and accepted Christ as his savior. Mr. Lovette baptized him right back there in our baptistry. Mr. Lovette left. But my husband changed and found some kind of forgiveness. He quit drinking. He began to pay attention to me and to the kids. He came to church with us and even joined a Sunday School class. He's sitting back there today and he's a Deacon in this church. I didn't remember those visits. I did remember him. I didn't even remember that I baptized him. But all the way back to Birmingham I remember telling Gayle. You know sometimes in this business we don't see much change and much forgiveness. But when the forgiveness of God's love touches us we have to change.
Mark says when you search for Christmas you better be on the lookout for an angel. Angel? There's no angel in these verses. I"m not so sure. The second verse says: I will send my messenger. And the word means angel. And this is followed by the emergence of John the Baptist in the wilderness. He was a wild man. Clothed in camel's hair. Leather girdle--he ate locusts and wild honey. Long tangled-up matted down hair. He was a mess. He was a cross between Tarzan and Sylvester Stallone on a bad day. And Mark says that John said--I'm not the Messiah. Even though there was a whole group that thought he was and became quite a force in the early church. What did John say? I'm only the messenger. And the words means angel.
So, I want you to be on the look out for some angel this Christmas. I'm not talking about some winged creature. No. Real angels are more like John the Baptist. They come to us in disguise. But Mark says we hear this good news through some unlikely angel.
The Doctor told me that when she was born that his Doctor friends came in and told him and his wife, “She’ll never be normal. Why don’t you put her in a home where she can get the best care.” They wouldn’t do that. And so they brought her home and she was sickly and lot of problems. But they loved her…and she changed their lives. They got interested in other Down Syndrome kids. They started a group of parents. They gave a lot of money and time to helping others. And all the time Maria was growing and finding an enormous place in their hearts.
One Saturday morning I got a call from the Doctor. Maria had died. Her heart just stopped. And I went over and cried with the family. Saying goodbye was hard. But every time I go back they talk about how their lives would never, ever have been what they were without Maria. Can you imagine, they would say, if we had put her away somewhere—what we would have missed? The point? Open your eyes—we never know when God is gonna knock on our door and some angel in disguise is going to come into our house and change us forever. That’s what Mark says Christmas means.
I kept looking at our text. Good news. Be on the lookout for an angel. And I saw here something else I almost missed. Mark's Christmas gospel is a strange story. For, you see it begins in a wilderness. He begins by saying that's what the prophet says: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. And that's what Mark says about John--he begins his ministry in the wilderness.
Mark quoted the prophet Isaiah first. One day, he wrote, he shall come. He will bring comfort. He will exalt the valleys. He will make low the mountains that block our way. He will make the crooked straight. And in exile, far from home, they would hear a promise: One shall come in this wilderness. Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace.
Vincent Taylor said that when Mark wrote of the wilderness he had in mind the wild, uncultivated wasteland to the west of the Dead Sea. Christmas does not begin when they turn on the light at the Galleria or when they light the White House Christmas tree. It begins in the wilderness where there is darkness and scorpions and no roadmaps and fear and loneliness and for Jesus, temptation.
Where are the silver bells and Rudolph and and chestnuts roasting on an open fire? That's not in Mark's Christmas story. His Christmas setting was a hard world where hearts were broken and it was hard to believe.So don't you tell me that Christmas won't come this year because you lost someone. Or that you got a bad lab report and you're scared. Don't tell me Christmas won't come because your job is shaky and the children won't be home for Christmas or you are all by yourself.
Fred Craddock says that advent pilgrims on the way to the manger must pass through the desert. That's what that ugly manger and no room in the inn and a smelly stable and a King that would kill him if he could find him really means. Wilderness. Hard times. This is where he does his best work.