Archive for the ‘Christmas’ category

Speaking Hope In the Christmas Shadow

December 26, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                               December 26, 2017

                                  

Yesterday our three grandkids ran around our house like sugar-hyped squirrels, excited about the wrapped presents that they would soon tear into. It was a great day of brisket chili, chilled shrimp, homemade Chex mix, and pie. The bounty of food items on the kitchen island was simply dressing for the family time, laughter, and the playing out of various family traditions.

Yesterday was a feast in the midst of a time when Carol and I have encountered several families in the midst of emotional famine. This Advent Season seems to have been more about speaking hope to various folks in the shadow of Christmas.

On Friday I had attended the funeral of Ray Lutz, a fifty year football and basketball official who was one of my officiating mentors. At 77 he had passed away suddenly. Funerals close to Christmas have a sadness to them regardless of how old the departed is.

On Saturday the wife of my friend, Mark Miller, went into the hospital…and is still there…with some serious health complications. Crystal, the mother of four, spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day laying in a hospital bed, a time that had always been spent gathered around the family Christmas tree and dinner table. There is something deeply discouraging for a mom having to be monitored by ward nurses on Christmas Day instead of being the monitor of the family festivities at home.

And then on Sunday afternoon Carol and I went across the street to our neighbor’s house to express our condolences. Their eighteen year old grandson, a young man I had watched grow up, played basketball in our driveway with, and had coached in middle school football, was murdered a few weeks ago. We hadn’t heard about it until a former neighbor told us. We sat and talked to the grieving grandparents whose hearts were broken. To go through Christmas with the absence of one of the young ones is a journey walked with heavy emotional boots. We could not understand the depth of their grief, but we could sit at their kitchen table and listen to their hearts.

And finally to talk to my dad later on that same day and offer him encouragement. Just a few days released from his latest hospital stay, he has slowed down a good bit and now has to make choices about what he has the energy to do and not to do. Each day he is a gift to us, but each day is also a struggle  for him layered with uncertainty. I’m so thankful for my sister who watches over him since I live four states away.

Ray Lutz’s funeral was a community sharing of hope. The hundreds of folks to attended brought hope and encouragement to the family. The laughter caused by the staring of stories was like a soothing ointment to the wounds of loss.

With Mark and Crystal Miller I was simply a presence that symbolized hope in the midst of confused despair. With our neighbors Carol and I assured them of our prayers and support. It was an assurance to them that we will walk alongside them as they take each day ahead.

With my dad I simply spoke hope to him about his grandkids and great grandkids. That things are good with them. It provided some laughter in his soul as he pondered the stories of their lives.

Christmas sometimes is all glitter and lights; and sometimes it’s simply a word of hope that we suddenly realize is the greatest gift we could ever give!

The Inclusiveness of Christmas

December 24, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                             December 24, 2017

                             

Our nation has always had a battle over who belongs and who doesn’t, whether it be in certain areas, positions, occupations, or institutions. It goes back to even before the patriots of the 1770’s.

American history is dotted with issues over who could own land and who couldn’t? Who was allowed to vote and who wasn’t (which in many cases was also tied to who owned land and who didn’t)? Immigrants who came into the country in those days, and even for the rest of our existence, were pushed into certain locations. In the late 1800’s Chinese immigrants were viewed with suspicion and often mistreated.

In the early 1800’s many Protestant families in our country didn’t celebrate Christmas because it was seen as being too Catholic! Talk about religiously biased!

When I was growing up the phrase “they live on the other side of the tracks” was an indication of division based mostly on race, as well as economic class.

In recent times the debate about who belongs and who doesn’t has taken different shapes, and the battles have been fought in various venues. Agreement rarely raises her beautiful face. Instead the ugliness of humanity- our amazing ability to mistreat one another- often emerges.

A wedding cake battle in Colorado brings the issue of accepting everyone into the arena to go up against a couple who have deep religious beliefs about same-sex marriage. It has been a case where neither side has yielded.

In another area of life illegal immigrants are being sent home. Higher walls are seen as being part of the answer. Churches have offered sanctuary to those who could be deported. It’s a battle over what is legal versus what is humane? 9-11 will always make Americans suspicious of those who are noticeably different than white middle-class citizens…although Timothy McVeigh was about as white as you could get, and he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Here’s a hard statement that Christians who are also  Americans have a difficult time hearing: Our Christian faith is not always in line with our American pride and ways. That is never more apparent than at Christmas time when we talk about the birth scene of Jesus. His very pregnant mother and his father couldn’t find any space in the inn so they were pushed out into a stable. The birth was witnessed by livestock. Shepherds may have arrived a bit later, and wisemen from the East came sometime later on, perhaps even months.

The idea of our savior not having a place where infants usually were born is an indication that the gospel is not just for the normal folk, those who are accepted and valued. Shepherds were not to be seen or heard. They were expected to just stay out there and take care of the sheep, and yet Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd.

Christmas reminds us that God welcomes everyone, and that his people are to be welcoming. We may not agree with everyone, their life choices, lifestyles, and opinions, but we are to be purveyors of grace and peace.

Each of us comes into a different arena from time to time where the battle between being a devoted follower of Christ wrestles with our passion for our nation. Those two often become entangled and difficult to discern which is which. What is Christian is often also American, but sometimes that “arm” that we thought belonged to Christ was instead the arm of patriotism that got mistaken for belonging to Jesus.

And the thing is, it’s always been that way in our nation!

Eric the Christ Child

December 19, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     December 19, 2017

                                    

(This is based on a true story that occurred on Sunday, December 17, 2017)

Three year old Eric arrived at the Methodist Church excited about his role in the Children’s Christmas Play as the baby Jesus. Even though he was a bit old to play the newborn babe he was the youngest available to fill the position. His mom was as excited as he was. She had her son scrubbed and spotless. A clean child seemed to be a prerequisite for Eric to act like Jesus.

They entered the sanctuary where there was already buzz and laughter. Two young girls in glimmering white dresses pranced around the front of the sanctuary. They were playing the role of angels to the disbelief of their brother.  Another girl who was about five was a third angel but she didn’t have a white dress. Instead she wore a red one. The devil, however, she wasn’t! It was a wardrobe decision based on financial resources, not theological assumptions.

Two handfuls of adults were scattered around the small sanctuary waiting with expectation. If the children’s program ran long the pastor had already forewarned them that she might not give the sermon for the morning.

They were hoping for slow-speaking children!

The pastor would need to exit following the service and drive the twenty miles or so to the other congregation she served. Worship in the Methodist Church was on a time limit!

The children were assembling themselves…three angels, two shepherds, and Jesus. Eric started heading up the center aisle, but Mrs. Book, the director, stopped him halfway to the altar. He was still wearing his red Santa hat. Red Santa hats were not a part of Jesus’ wardrobe. She eased it off the young boy’s head and handed it back to his mom. Eric’s long flowing hair was now fully visible.

The angels let him get settled in the chancel area in front of the communion table. There were probably a lot of theological ramifications to the going-ons but no one wanted to stop and have a discussion. Any veteran of children’s programs at Christmas time knows that pure theology is secondary in importance to cuteness and costume design.

The angels wrapped a white blanket around a sitting Jesus. Eric was ready to be the messiah!

The play started. The angels, standing on the left side of the platform, started talking to the shepherds, who were standing on the right side of the platform. Jesus was visible between them, taking in the dialogue. A few lines into the conversation he spread his arms to his sides and took on a messiah-like look. Since he had no dialogue lines to say it was his contribution to the action. After all, the angels were talking about him. He couldn’t just sit there and look uninvolved.

The play ended. It went long enough and the pastor couldn’t preach. The message had already been heard anyway!

And the messiah came dancing back down the aisle to where his mom was keeping his Santa hat safe!

Playing Through The Wrong Keys To Find A Note Of Harmony

December 18, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                 December 18, 2017

                  

Yesterday I drove out to the hamlet of Simla, Colorado for the children’s Christmas program at the Methodist Church, followed by speaking at First Baptist of Simla. I had been invited to attend the children’s program and told the invitee that I would try to make it. It was delightful as only a small town small church can be.

For the offertory two young girls, both around ten years of age, played a piano duet. Both were dressed in beautiful shiny attire, beaming with excitement and a bit of nervousness. They positioned the sheet music in front of them and then carefully took their seats on the bench. They each took a calming breath, placed their fingers on the keys, and one of the girls whispered “One, two, three, play.”

The first notes were uncertain and wavering. Five notes in to the song they glanced quickly at one another, offering mutual encouragement for the adventure.

And then there were the uneven notes, one earlier and one later in its sound…another wrong note beginning to be played but as quickly as it started the playing finger slipping to the right note next to it. The small congregation of twenty of so “hoped” them on, longing for the next played sounds to be the right notes.  It was two girls risking failure but hoping for discovery.

And then in the midst of the effort and searches suddenly a few notes of perfect harmony sounded! One of the girls looked at the other with an expression of surprised delight, as if she was saying “Did we just do that?”

A few moments later they synchronized the playing of their last keys and breathed a sigh of relief. The gathered faithful clapped in appreciation of the experience. Even though their offering of talents was a bit short of perfect it was sweet music to the souls of the saints. The young ladies looked out at the church and displayed smiles of satisfaction and finished business.

It reminded me of the church, sometimes struggling to find the harmony as the struggles of ministry surface. Wrong decisions made with the right intentions, right choices made with the wrong intentions…like two young girls seeking to work together to play beautiful music and often missing the notes.

And then, all of a sudden, moments of harmony surface in a ministry that is mostly uncoordinated. The moments bring smiles to the faces of the weary, peace to the spirit of the Body. Just when it seemed that a bond with Christ would never be discovered again it suddenly appeared.

Ministry is more often like a pair of ten year olds playing a piano duet than the rhythm  of a symphony. If it was always such sweet music it may not be appreciated nearly as much. Paul made note of it when he wrote in Romans 12 these words: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those to mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with those of low position. Do not be conceited.” (Romans 12:15-16)

There was no conceit sitting on the piano bench yesterday, just two young girls freed by the church to risk imperfect talents in the ministering to the saints. It was my closest connection with the Holy the whole day!

The Christ Child In The Shadow of Sutherland Springs, Texas

December 17, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                               December 17, 2017

             

On November 5 of this year a shooter stormed into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas and opened fire. Twenty-six people were killed that day. Twenty-three inside the building, two outside, and one who died on the way to the hospital.

Ten years ago this month 24 year old Matthew Murray shot and killed Stephanie and Rachel Works, and wounded their father and two other people outside New Life Church in Colorado Springs. The night before he had shot and killed two staff members at a Youth With A Mission center in Arvada, Colorado.

Two years ago Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people who were attending a mid-week prayer service at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Violence in the midst of American churches is becoming a bit too frequent for us. The fact is that violence in churches in other places around the world is much more frequent. Religious persecution in those faraway places that we only know about from page 15 of the news section of the Sunday paper is a way of life.

Let’s be honest! There are a limited number of “safe places” today. Schools now have security procedures, but shootings still happen there. Malls and work places, parks and restaurants…they all appear in the list of places where people have died in mass shootings.

And then we read the story of the Christ child, and see the violence in the miraculous event: Herod has his henchmen slash the life out of infant boys. It seems strange that the miraculous story of God could be stained with the violence of man. It gives us a sense of the uncomfortable truth of our day; that the ways of God will always meet the resistance of the world and its ways.

Joe and Claryce Holcombe lost eight family members in the Sutherland Springs church shooting. They are still approaching the season of Advent with hope and joy filtered through the experience of sorrow. Married for sixty years they look forward to the day of reuniting with departed family in heaven. It gives them tempered peace even as they will be looking at the empty places at the dinner table this Christmas.

Bad things happen in this world, but not just to followers of Jesus. Bad things happen to everyone. The difference that gives us peace is that Jesus followers are also accompanied by the Christ who comes alongside them in the journey. In the hostility of the world he is our safe place, a shelter in the midst of the storm.

The Changing of Advent (Holiday) Traditions

December 13, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          December 13, 2017

                            

Last Christmas Eve was a strange time for me. It was the first time in 38 years that I was not involved in the leadership of a Christmas Eve worship service. Having retired from pastoral ministry at the end of 2015 I had to shift from leading to being one of the ones being led.

It’s okay! I survived, and enjoyed the worship gathering at First Baptist Church in Colorado Springs that evening. It just felt weird, like the first time you wear silk pajamas!

Advent and Christmas are punctuated with traditions. Last Sunday we sang Christmas carols in worship. Christmas music is about as traditional as you can get, although the Starbucks I’m sitting in right now is playing their “holiday tracks.” Bah humbug!

In the secularizing of our culture the traditions’ scale has been shifting in recent years. Although Christmas Eve is the most heavily attended worship service of the year, when people think of traditions between Thanksgiving and Christmas they are likely to put 5 A.M. Black Friday shopping trips, office holiday parties, watching The Christmas Story movie or It’s A Wonderful Life, fruitcake, and ugly sweater contests as their traditions this time of the year.

Advent calendars used to be a tradition in many families, counting down the days until Christmas. Advent is a season of waiting and expectation but we are no longer a culture that waits very well!

Wrapped gifts used to be symbolic of the gifts being brought to the Christ-child. Now gift cards in an envelope will be the biggest sellers this season. We’re unsure of what to give someone so we get extra fuel points at the grocery store by simply buying a Best Buy gift card and letting the receiver figure out what they want. Our giving has taken on an element of what we get out of it!

The number of people sending Christmas cards, another tradition, is dropping as Facebook has made things easier and cheaper…and who wants to wait in line at the post office anyway?

The tradition of Christmas Eve services has changed also. It used to be that going to one’s church on Christmas Eve was a time of worship and reuniting. Kids who had grown up in the church were back in town. Old friends were back. It was a gathering of community that had become tradition. In recent years families look for a service that fits their time schedule. Mega-churches with five or six service times become the place to go so that people can get on with what else needs to be done.

Things change, that’s how it is! I just wish more people would first think of “O, Come All Ye Faithful!” when they consider a Christmas song rather than “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

Christmas Off-Key

December 10, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      December 10, 2017

                                     

Our three children still remember the car ride on Christmas Day morning. We were coming over Rosemont Hill in Portsmouth, Ohio, heading towards my parents’ house upriver in Ironton. It was pre-satellite radio, pre-CD, pre iTunes days! We had to listen to…The Radio! AM no less!

Carol found a church choir trying to sing! The song was “What Child Is This?” and one man with a rather loud voice stood out as we listened in pain. He always came in about a half note too late. One important line in the song goes “This, this is Christ the King!” This man’s first “this” straddled the end of the same word everyone else was singing, and the beginning of its repeat right after. He used it as a conjunction where there was not suppose to be one.

To this day we bring up that song and choir, and…yes…we mock the moment as we relive it and impersonate it.

Christmas is known for all of its music, Handel’s Messiah, Christmas CD’s, Christmas carolers. In the midst of all the peace-filled music there will always be some shrieks, screeches, and voices that can’t quite get to those high notes.

We still have memories of our son, David, singing with the kids of First Baptist Church in Mason, Michigan, and David covering his left ear because Luke Wandell kept singing the same note over and over again loudly to his left. Luke was totally unaware of the pain he was inflicting. It goes down in the Wolfe family humorous memories section.

The church I grew up in, First Baptist Church of Ironton, always did a Christmas Cantata. The choir practiced in preparation for it numerous evenings, but no amount of practice could cure one lady whose voice could also have been used to frighten burglars away and keep mosquitoes from nesting. We all prayed for laryngitis to afflict her, but God did not answer our prayers. We hoped there would be male solos during the cantata to give our ears time to heal before the next onslaught!

Christmas, however, was about celebration and decorations, no matter how off-key the musicians were. Having someone sing “O Holy Night” while the congregation lit candles at the Christmas Eve service…that is a tradition that still resonates in my soul. Nate and Alyssa Price playing their string instruments as Jean Price accompanied them on the piano…Wow! Singing with my two daughters and one of my son-in-laws on Christmas Eve, I’ll always cherish that!

Christmas has its off-key moments that simply sound off in between long periods of sweet harmony. The times when we look for the ear plugs are simply like receiving one of those gifts that our young child wrapped, a jumbled mass of paper with a roll of tape to hold it together. We received it, cherished it, and filed the memory of it within our minds for the rest of our life.