Archive for the ‘Christmas’ category

Generic Christianity

November 17, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           November 17, 2017

                                         

Starbucks is decorating their stores with Christmas…err, Holiday gifts and ornaments. Although they have a dark roast coffee called “Christmas Blend”, as far as I can tell it is the only reference to the name we place on December 25. They use words and terms like “joy”, “peace”, and “give good” to point to the festive holiday time without saying Christmas.

Starbucks keeps it generic in order to be more appealing…and raise the profit margin. I don’t fault them for this. Although I enjoy my coffee I don’t see it as a spiritual experience to sit on a stool in a Starbucks for an hour…as I’m doing now!

Christianity and the Christian church, on the other hand, should stand for something solid and transformative. The Christian faith is decorated with words like “redemption”, “transformation”, “grace”, and “forgiveness”. They are pillars built on the sacrifice of Christ.

It seems that churches are in danger of becoming generic in their presentation, their terminology, and their beliefs. I’m not talking about churchy terms like benediction, narthex, Eucharist, and sacraments. No, I’m going in a different direction…kinda’! Instead of mirroring Christ, the church too often mirrors culture. Instead of counter-cultural we mostly go with the flow. Instead of transforming we have been mostly transformed…by the NFL, The Bachelor, and CNN and Fox News.

There are encouraging signs, however! The relief efforts of various churches and faith organizations in recent months to help those affected by flooding and hurricanes has been awesome. It reconnects with the early Christians in Rome who would minister to those dying of smallpox. The epidemic that killed as much as a third of the population in AD 165 spared no family. Even the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, succumbed to it. Families would push their sick out of the house and into the street to die alone. Followers of Jesus, however, remembered their Savior touching lepers and healing the sick, and so they willingly became infected with the disease in order to show love and compassion to those who were dying. John Ortberg, in his book Who Is This Man? (page 38) refers to sociologist Rodney Stark who argues that one of the primary reasons for the spread of the Christian faith was because of the way Jesus followers responded to sick people. Comforting the afflicted gets us back to our roots.

Generic Christianity sets up a buffet table of doctrinal sample and avoid…like the prime rib of beef and the peas and carrots. This looks good for me and that has no place on my plate. Generic faith gets customized for my taste. Prayer may have a prominent place but grace gets avoided; worship is appetizing but confession is about as appealing as week-old fruit salad.

Authentic Christianity is life-changing and, perhaps, that’s why it gets avoided. It requires our surrender, our yielding.

Conversing with Church Runaways

July 16, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                 July 16, 2017

                             

Josh Packard wrote a book a couple of years ago entitled Church Refugees. A sociologist, Packard had noticed that there had been a good bit of research and writing about the “Nones”, those people who select “No Religious Affiliation” when they are filling out a personal information sheet; but there hadn’t been that much study conducted that dealt with the “Dones”, those people who had been involved in a church and left it to go…nowhere!

It doesn’t take me very long to recall a number of “Dones” that have been involved in a church that I’ve pastored. Packard labels the “Dones” as “church refugees”, meaning that they have left where they were a part but aren’t quite sure where they will land. There is a vey good chance that where they land will not be in “churchland!”

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who would classify herself as a church runaway. I deeply respect this person, and value the conversations I’ve had with her. She exited the church of her upbringing mainly because of the judgmental posture of some of the church people she had known for years. They assaulted the experience of community that she longed for. She observed inconsistency in their words and actions and finally exited by whichever door was closest and never looked back.

The thing is…I can not argue her reasoning! She’s right! Church people often ration out grace and pour out judgment. Grace is too fluid and judgment is very clear, so judgment becomes the “go to.”

Some of the neatest, most incredible people I know are intimately involved in churches…and some of the meanest, most vindictive people I know are involved in churches. The blessing of the church is that everyone is welcome (At least that’s what the marquee says!); and the curse of the church is that it will accept people that no one else would put up with!

And it’s not like the church at one time had it all together and then lost its way! 1 Corinthians deals with a dysfunctional congregation that needed an outside consultant to come in and do a full body analysis! Spain didn’t join the American Colonists in their Revolutionary War fight against England because Americans were “too Protestant!” In other words, they did not belong to the one true church. On the other hand, in the early 1800’s very few Protestants celebrated Christmas in America because it was “too Catholic!” Churches have been prone to pointing their fingers at other churches and shaking their heads in contempt.

And so many churches are no longer seen as being safe locations but places that are caustic. And we have no one to blame but ourselves!

Here’s the interesting, and perhaps disturbing, thing! I feel much more comfortable having a conversation with my church runaway friend than I do with a lot of people who sit in pews each Sunday morning. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it is a bit unsettling!

The End of Grace (Tree)

July 5, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           July 5, 2017

                                    

On January 9th of this year a wind storm whipped through our area, registering speeds of 103 miles per hour. Power lines were downed, semis were overturned, shingles were blown off roofs, fences collapsed, and trees were uprooted.

At our house the “Grace Tree” lay on its side like the family pet hit by a car. Hospice didn’t need to be called. It had been put out of its misery already!

The “Grace Tree” was situated in the front yard of our house to the side of the driveway. It had been about five feet tall when we moved in eighteen years ago. At the Day of Reckoning it was about fifteen feet in height, but…ugly in appearance. Our former neighbor, David Volitis, labeled it “the ugliest tree ever.” Think teenager with a bad case of acne…and warts…and missing half of his front teeth!

Across the street at McGillivray’s another pine tree has the look of one of those special trees that gets chopped down and re-situated in front of the White House at Christmas time. It looks like it could be the inspiration for a few Thomas Kincaid paintings.

And the thing is…that tree and our Grace Tree were planted at the same time. Now they looked like the Homecoming Queen and her ugly sister!

What our tree reminded me about…every time I pulled into our driveway…was the grace of God. It got harder to look at every year. Instead of growing wider each year, like me, it just kept growing taller with no increase in width! Each time I arrived home to see it standing there I would say to myself, “If not for the grace of God…” Every year I thought about borrowing our neighbor’s axe and going “Paul Bunyan” on it, but I held off. Every time I saw the homely pine I thought about how undeserving I was of God’s blessings.

“If not for the grace of God…”

And then January 9th arrived and grace ended with a thud around 6 A.M. I suppose you can say that even grace has its limits! We expect it to always be the operating system of our life but at some point we tend to stop seeing it as a gift and view it, instead, as an expectation. Grace gets mis-defined as something we’re entitled to, and will always be there…regardless!

The lesson I take from our “Grace Tree” is not that God’s wrath is surely to come if I don’t get my act together. On the contrary, what I take from it is that God’s love for me goes far beyond the tipping point. In a world where things and people are tossed to the side when they lose their beauty grace is difficult for people to understand. It is rooted in love and shaded by kindness.

Loving kindness, that’s what it is!

The Bet

June 19, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                             June 19, 2017

                                                  

In September of 1977 I began dating a young lady named Carol Faletti. Both of us were involved in the leadership of Young Life in the western suburbs of Chicago, and we hit it off pretty well to begin with. A couple of dates and a lot of laughter, it seemed like the relationship had possibilities. I was beginning my second year of seminary. She was teaching pre-school deaf children.

And then we made a bet!

I was still rooting for the Buckeyes of Ohio State at that point. Her brother-in-law had attended Oklahoma University. The Sooners were scheduled to invade “The Horseshoe” in Columbus for a football showdown, so we made a wager on the game. If the Sooners won I would buy Carol a steak dinner. If the Buckeyes were victorious she would do the same for me. Oklahoma kicker, Uwe von Schamann kicked a 41 yard field goal with two seconds left and Oklahoma was triumphant 29-28.

Before I could buy the steak dinner for her, however, both of us started dating other people!  Time passed and paying my debt got buried underneath term papers and textbooks. I didn’t really think of it any more…and then around Christmas of 1978 I received a Christmas card from Carol wishing me glad tidings, but also with the statement “Still waiting on my steak dinner!”

I had taken a class that fall in “Liberation Theology”, and was still intrigued by the language so I sent her a quick reply that said something like “The oppressed shall serve the oppressor, and I’ll buy you a steak dinner when I get back from Christmas break.”

On January 8, 1979 we had a nice romantic dinner at that restaurant hot spot where so many romances begin, Sizzler! Two months later we got engaged! Four and a half months after that we were married!

When I look back at those events I’m amazed at how an unfulfilled promise set in motion a thirty-eight year commitment! So many factors could have altered or derailed our journey. Von Schamann could have missed the field goal and Carol would have quickly paid up her bet. There would have not been a reason to get back together a year and a half later. She could have forgotten about the bet and we would never have renewed our relationship. Each of us could have gotten involved in another relationship that could have resulted in our paths never crossing again.

So many other possible outcomes, but a bet…one silly unfulfilled bet…caused two young adults to risk the possibility of love.

That story continues to amaze me, even after 38 years! It draws me towards the Great Designer, the Orchestrator, and gives me a sense of assurance that He knows what He’s doing! I would even go so far as to say that Use von Schamann didn’t make the 41 yard field goal. God did…because he had two people in mind who he wanted to bring together!

What Might Jesus Wish For On His Birthday?

December 24, 2016

                                                                                            December 24, 2016

                           

Most people reading this will be opening up some kind of wrapped gift tonight or tomorrow…or whenever their family and friends gatherings take place. Let’s be honest! We all enjoy opening presents…even if there’s underwear inside!

In celebration of Jesus’ birth the Magi brought him three gifts that are mentioned in scripture: gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Each was a gift with a purpose as it related to Jesus. The gifts recognized his royalty, his priestly function, and his death.

I wonder what might be on Jesus’ gift wish list this birthday? What might Jesus hope for? I know I’m being a bit presumptuous in answering that question, but bearing in mind the purpose, personality, and teachings of Jesus, this is what I THINK he would want.

An Avalanche of Understanding- I think Jesus would be taken back by the lack of understanding that is present everywhere…and the absence of even wanting to understand. Political division, divisive people going at it in church, parents not understanding their children and vice versa, communities not understanding the plight of the homeless, well-to-do folk not understanding poverty, and just about everyone not understanding someone else’s point of view. I think Jesus might even expand his sermon on the mount to include “Blessed are those who seek to be understanding for they shall be filled with wisdom!”

    A Tsunami of GenerosityWe live in a time of “moderate Scroogeness!” Most of us would be offended to be described as Scrooges so we show “some generosity”, while hoarding everything else. I’m not talking about giving a buck to every panhandler you meet, but rather a willingness to be generous. Jesus talked about giving up our coat to someone in need. Recently my wife Carol brought about half a dozen coats to me and asked which one or two we should keep. She was going to take the rest to a place that was collecting coats. My first reaction…to myself!…was “I might still need that!” Carol’s generosity also had wisdom mixed in. “How many coats can you wear at one time, Bill?” Many of us are prone to hoard what we have instead of allowing our resources to fulfill their purpose. I think Jesus might say something like this: “The poor you will always have with you. That is not an excuse to dismiss them, but rather an opportunity to bless them.”

    An Appetite for Spiritual NourishmentI think Jesus would desire the gift of seeking him, walking closely beside him, and wanting more of him. His desire would be less entertainment centers and more worship centers, less choreographed worship services and more spontaneity, less “the look” and more the walk. Like when we grow old and instead of a gift card we’d just like to sit with our grown up children and talk, perhaps Jesus’ wished-for gift would be ongoing conversations with people who are interested in knowing him better, desirous of a journeying relationship wth him. A dear friend of mine recently told me that the younger generations often want a big splash of spiritual excitement, but Jesus asks us for a continuos relationship that asks for $5 at a time. In other words, Jesus desires a spiritual appetite that is steady, long, and forever…not just for a weekend every once in a while.

Three gifts! One that speaks to our mind, one that speaks to our heart, and one that speaks to our spirit. Or put another way, one that speaks to those we differ with, one that speaks to those who need us, and one that speaks to the One who we need.

Happy birthday, Jesus!

The Red Kettle Bellringer

December 22, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     December 22, 2016

                                 

The ringing could be heard all over the parking lot of the grocery store. The seventy year old man waving the bell back and forth smiled at everyone who passed by regardless of whether they put something in his kettle or not. Most didn’t, but he engaged them with a greeting anyway.

A young woman with her four year old daughter approached on his right hoping to sneak by unnoticed. The bellringer turned as she was right beside him and shouted a greeting. “Merry Christmas to you and yours!” The greeting made her step back startled for a moment. “Would your little girl like a candy cane?”

The four year old looked up with delight and a smile from ear to ear. “I’m sure she would,” replied the mom. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything to put into the donation bucket.”

“That’s quite all right, ma’am! Perhaps you’ll be able to pass on the glad tidings to someone in another way…a kind word to a neighbor, a visit to someone in the hospital, or even saying a prayer for someone else in need. There always seems to be something that we can do to help this world be a bit more decent to be a part of.”

“Thank you! I’ll keep those things in mind.”

“Mr. Bellringer,“ came the soft voice of the young child. “Do you get to keep the money that you collect?”

“Lord, no, darling!” he chuckled. “This money goes to help some folk who don’t have food to eat or a bed to lay their head in. I’m just the man who has the privilege to ring the bell and hand out candy canes.” He turned to the left to wish another customer entering the store a merry Christmas. Another woman exiting walked by the red kettle and tucked a folded five dollar bill into the slit on top of the kettle. “Thank you, ma’am!”

“So, Mr. Bellringer-“

“Call me Mr. Sam, darling!”

“Mr. Sam, what do you get for standing here and ringing the bell?”

“Well, my dear, I get…to do it!”

“Get to do it?”

“Yes, I get to do it. I get to see the looks of generosity that come upon the faces of people who make decisions to give up something of their own to help someone they will probably never see.”

The mom spoke up. “But don’t you get a bit miffed at all the folk who pretend not to see you as they pass by?”

“No, ma’am! That’s their choice, and you know something?”

“What?”

“I used to be just like that. Kind of a hardened man who didn’t really care about anyone or anything else. I can’t really say how I got to that point but it happened.”

“So…something must have changed.”

“Yes, ma’am! It did, and it was about this time of the year…ten years ago, in fact!” He paused for a moment to greet a young boy and his parents and hand the child one of his candy canes. “My wife, Ellie, came down sick…and I mean really sick! So sick that I carried her out to the car and started to drive her to the hospital. She was in severe pain, moaning and groaning, and all of a sudden as we drove she just passed out.”

“Oh my!”

“As you can tell, I was scared to death and I pulled over to the side of the road, put my flashers on, and tried to revive her. I was frantic! Thank the Good Lord that no more than thirty seconds later a pick-up truck pulled up behind me on the side of the road and a man and his wife got out to see what was going on. I jumped out of the car and screamed about my wife being unresponsive. The woman was a nurse who worked in the ER of the very hospital I was heading to, and she performed CPR on Ellie right there, got her breathing again, and jumped in the car with me as we drove to the hospital. She called ahead and they were waiting for us when we arrived five minutes later.”

The little girl looked up at Mr. Sam and with great concern asked, “Was she okay?”

“Darling, there was something wrong with her heart, but they were able to fix it and she ended up being okay. But you know something, if that couple hadn’t stopped to help it would have been a different story. That day changed me! I guess you could say that the Good Lord got my attention about how selfish I had been. If that had been someone else pulled off the side of the road and I was passing by I wouldn’t have thought twice about them, but just kept on going. But Ellie probably wouldn’t still be alive today if those two people hadn’t helped. Like I said, that day changed me!”

“And that’s why you ring the bell?” asked the mom. “That’s why you greet people with a merry Christmas and hand out candy canes.”

“It’s a simply way that doesn’t take any advanced education, if you know what I mean. The only requirements are being able to ring a bell and be friendly with people. And you know something, ma’am? I enjoy it!”

At that moment a woman was leaving the store and she came by the red kettle. “Here you go, Sam! Tell Ellie I said hello!” She dropped some money into the collection.

“You betcha’, Helen! You working today?”

“Heading there now! Will you stop by and say hello?”

“Absolutely! Maybe I’ll bring you a candy cane!”

“Save those for the kids, Sam!” She walked on across the parking lot.

“Is that one of your neighbors?”

“In  a way!”

The little girl spoke up again. “Mr. Sam, are you going home after you get done ringing your bell?”

“No, I’m heading to the hospital.”

“Is your wife there?”

“No, I go by the pediatric ward…that’s where the sick children stay…and I pass out candy canes and tell them stories to make their day a little brighter.”

“That’s really nice, Mr. Sam,” said the mom. “Is Helen one of the nurses there?”

“Yes, she’s a nurse in the pediatric ward now.”

“How did you meet? Did you meet her when you started volunteering there?”

“No, I knew her before that. She used to be a nurse in the ER.”

The young mom paused and then began, “Is that…is she…?”

“Yes! She’s the one who saved Ellie’s life.” And he gave a wink to the mom and her daughter. “I hope you have a very merry Christmas!” The little girl took two steps to Mr. Sam and hugged him with all her might.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Sam!”

Revising the Christmas Story

December 21, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      December 21, 2016

                            

I gave a “test” to the twenty folk who make up the congregation of the church I am “kinda’ pastoring” right now. I say “kinda’ pastoring” because my friend Steve Wamberg and I mostly fill the pulpit on Sundays, and are also helping them figure out the direction of their future ministry.

The test I gave them was “True and False” statements about the Christmas story. I love it, because it brings to the surface how much our understanding of the story has been determined by Christmas carols and conjecture. Through the layers of the years, music, and imagination there has been a lot of “stuff” added to the pure biblical story.

In Ken Bailey’s book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, he brings out a few of these story revisions. For example, how many nativity scenes will we see this Christmas that are set up in a make-shift barn stable? Growing up in eastern Kentucky where my grandparents lived on a farm, I identified with the Christ-child born on a bed of hay in a barn that creaked and shook in the wind. Since my grandparents had a pack of barn cats that roamed the farm I always envisioned a few feline figurines in the nativity scene. Ken Bailey makes the point that in the homes of Bethlehem the stable was actually inside the house. Livestock were brought indoors at night, and the house usually had two rooms- one where the family resided and one where the livestock bedded down. The manger would have been where the livestock were kept…in the house! It’s a cultural understanding that seems strange to us, so we have simply revised it to fit our understanding better.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Whether Jesus was born in a cave, a barn, or was bunking with the cattle in the house is not a detail that changes the essence of the story. The essence of the story that does not change is that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, come to earth in the flesh…fully human and fully divine!

But what about when layer after layer of imagination is added to the story? What happens when the created stories crowd out the original truth, the original meaning? As I sit on my “writing stool” at Starbucks I’m listening to Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas”, and humming the tune that tells me that the best Christmas has snow. Unlike Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, it’s pretty doubtful that the first Christmas in the Bethlehem of Israel featured snow.

Saint Nicholas is a great story about a 4th Century Greek Christian bishop, known for his generosity to the impoverished. As time went on children were given gifts on the evening before St. Nicholas’s day of honor, December 6. During the Reformation there was increasing opposition to the honoring of saints. Martin Luther promoted the giving of gifts to children at that time, but sought to focus it back to the Christ-child. Santa Claus emerged sometime in the 17th or 18th Century as a blended character of Saint Nicholas and the English Father Christmas from the 16th Century.

Great story! Great and entertaining story…a jolly elderly man coming down chimneys, helped out by elves, escorted by flying reindeer. Great story!

My guess, however, is that if you gave a test to children and adults alike a huge majority would be much more proficient at knowing the Santa Claus created facts than the actual story of Saint Nicholas and…the biblical story of the birth of Jesus.

Imagination and creativity are wonderful gifts, but sometimes they steer us away from the story of the most wonderful Gift!