We Need a Little Christmas

we-need-a-little-christmas

With the hate that fills our wasteland of a world today, oh how we need a little Christmas, right this very minute.

The gospels tell us that in order to get a little Christmas, we first need to get a little John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the wilderness telling people the God’s honest truth. They tell us that “multitudes” went to hear the truth, even though they knew that sometimes the truth hurts, that sometimes the truth is not an easy thing to swallow. However, they instinctively knew that it was this truth that was going to set them free. If we listen to him, we will hear him make two points in his sermon: “God is coming!” and “You must change!”

John preached something like: “You are not right. Some part of you needs to be cut off, removed; something inside of you needs to be burned away. The racism and sexism, the homophobia and xenophobia, all of the pride, bigotry and hate inside of you needs to be destroyed, so we can fulfill the greatest commandment of God and love all of our neighbors: our white neighbors and our black neighbors; our straight neighbors and our LGBTQ neighbors; our Christian neighbors and our Muslim neighbors; our rich neighbors and our poor neighbors; our English-speaking neighbors and our foreign-speaking neighbors; our abled-bodied neighbors and our disabled neighbors.”

From his prolific sermon illustrations, “the fire, the ax, and chaff,” we know that what John was preaching was the death of something old and the birth of something new. John was preaching that before something can be born anew and fresh within us, something old and rotten has to die; before we can experience rebirth and new growth, the archaic and the stagnant need to pass away.

And when John preached with this brutal honesty, when John told the people what they needed to change, what they needed to cut off and burn up, the wilderness began to look something like the Garden of Eden. The muddy Jordan became the River of Life. Out of the dry dust, a flower began to bloom. The wasteland began to look a little like Christmas.

chrismtas charlie brown

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Farewell Farmville

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Reception at First Baptist Church, August 1999

When we moved to Farmville in 1999, you taught us the meaning hospitality.

When Lori was hospitalized, you taught us the meaning of empathy.

When Hurricane Floyd flooded our home, you taught us the meaning of kindness.

When terrorists attacked on 9-11, you taught us the meaning of community.

When Lori’s father passed away, you taught us the meaning of compassion.

When I continued my education, you taught us the meaning of generosity.

When we announced our move to Louisiana, you taught us the meaning of love.

When we lived a thousand miles away, you taught us the meaning of friendship.

When we moved back to Farmville, you taught us the meaning of home.

When we faced the stress of a recession, you taught us the meaning of peace.

When we changed denominations, you taught us the meaning of grace.

When we studied the words of Jesus together, you taught us the meaning of discipleship.

When our church grew, you taught us the meaning of inclusion.

When we celebrated weddings, baptisms and child dedications, you taught us the meaning of joy.

When we eulogized our loved ones, you taught us the meaning of hope.

When needs arose in the community, the region and the world, you taught us the meaning of missions.

When Carson and Sara graduated from high school, you taught us the meaning of family.

When we announced our move to Oklahoma, you taught us the meaning of gratitude.

And as we celebrate the holidays together for the last time, you continue to teach us the meaning of Emmanuel, God with us.

Thus, when we say farewell to Farmville in 2016, we know we will fare well.

You taught us that.

 

 

Have a Selfless Christmas

Bobby running

I have been an avid runner now for ten years. I love the way running makes me feel. I love the way running keeps me relatively thin. I love the way running allows me to enjoy nature. I love the way running gives me opportunities to make new friends.

Do you notice a common theme here? Me, me, me, me.

I confess that I run for many selfish reasons. However, thanks to Ainsley’s Angels, an organization created to help those with physical disabilities to enjoy some of the benefits of running, my running has suddenly become more selfless. Last week, Ainsley’s Angels graciously donated a wheelchair to be used to run 5k races with Bobby Hodge, Jr. who suffers with cerebral palsy.

It is as if a little bit of time spent running with Bobby this week has nearly absolved ten years’ worth of selfishness!

The holidays are upon us. If we are honest, we would confess that we love these days for many selfish reasons. We love the way that they make us feel. We love the way they help us enjoy our families and our friends. We love the lights, the parties and the gifts.

However, the truth is that it only takes a little selflessness to absolve a whole month of selfishness. So, during this holiday season, let us spend a little bit of our time doing something for someone else. Serve a hot meal in a soup kitchen. Visit a nursing home or a hospital. Adopt a family in need. Give to a charity. Make worship a priority. Most importantly, put a little faith in a little baby lying in a little manger.

And may our selfish days be transformed into selfless days. May our holidays suddenly become holy days.

Lessons from the Greatest Generation

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Every weekday morning, a small group of retired men meet at a local restaurant and gather around what they call “the Round Table.” Many, well into their nineties, meet to discuss politics, religion and how old they are getting over a cup of coffee and a sausage or cheese biscuit. All attend church regularly somewhere in town. Nearly all of them served our country during World War II or the Korean War. I would describe them as “conservative,” “patriotic,” and “Christian,” and maybe a little “grumpy.”

As a pastor in the community, I have learned that “the Round Table” is the place to go in town to get the latest news, a good laugh, and yes, even some gossip. I can always count on them to speak their minds, holding nothing back, whether it is regarding their latest physical maladies or what they really think about Obama.

One morning last week, part of the conversation went something like this:

“Preacher, what do you think about all of these poor refugees?”

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” I responded.

“And what do you think about all of these state governors saying that they are not allowed in their states?” asked another.

Before I could answer, another spoke up and said: “I can’t see Jesus turning away any of these refugees.”

Another said: “Yes, it may be risky. But Jesus did ask us to carry a cross, didn’t he?”

Someone added: “And he said that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him.”

I tried to get a word in edgewise, but quickly realized that, this time, it was best for the preacher to sit back and just listen.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” one said.

“Do unto others as you would have it done unto you,” said another.

“And all of these people are saying that we don’t have room for them. I got nine rooms in my house, and I only use three: the bathroom, the kitchen and the den. I fall asleep most nights in my recliner!”

“I got a whole upstairs with three bedrooms and a bath that I have not seen for years!”

“And these people would probably gladly live in our garages, even without heat!”

“And these young people are saying that we don’t have enough here in this country for them. They don’t know what it is like to live in this country when we really did not have anything. When I was growing up, we really did not have enough!”

“And if we turn our backs on these people, don’t you think it is only going to make people in this world hate us more than they already do.”

“We can’t let fear cause us to hate.”

“That’s right.”

Someone then changed the subject asking, “Preacher, have you seen John lately? He was in bad shape the last time we saw him. He could barely walk.”

“I thought he was going to fall the last time he came in here,” another said.

I said, “I will go by and check on him.”

Several responded at the same time: “Yes, we all need to do that.”

I then told them that I needed to go to the office. As I walked out the door, I thought to myself: “No wonder people call them “the greatest generation.”

God in Paris

paris 1Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister and children’s television host, once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

When horrific tragedy unfolded in Oklahoma City in 1995, New York City in 2001, and in Charleston, Kenya, Lebanon, and Paris in 2015, we witnessed demonic evil personified through the selfish actions of terrorists influenced by pride, hate and bad religion.

The evil was real, yet unimaginable; heart-wrenching, yet heart-numbing. The evil produced deafening silence and loud cries of anguish.

However, during the same dark moments, we witnessed holiness personified through the selfless and sacrificial actions of police officers, firefighters and other first-responders influenced by pure love and authentic faith.

We also witnessed love through the prayers, thoughts and actions of God’s children: Muslim, Jewish, Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and others.

The love expressed was real yet unimaginable, heart wrenching yet heart numbing. The willingness of people to suffer with, and even sacrifice their lives for, strangers produced deafening silence yet loud cheers of praise.

And the good news is this love that is pure, holy, sacrificial, real and unimaginable, unspeakable and cheerful, suffering and shocking, always overcomes the hate. This light always overcomes the darkness. This good always overtakes the evil.

So, in the midst of every tragedy, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Consequently, in the midst of every “scary thing” you will always find hope. You will always find God.

Grateful for Grace

life itself is graceDuring the holiday season, I often hear promos on the radio or television soliciting donations of toys, clothing or money to benefit “deserving” families. People will call me every year to ask our church to help an individual or a family at Christmas, and when they do, they will almost always add: “I believe these are the type of people who ‘deserve’ our gifts.”

When the love of God compelled God to give the gift of God’s self to the world, I am thankful God did not limit the gift of Christ to only those who “deserve” such a gift. It was while we were yet sinners, yet undeserving, that God revealed God’s unconditional love to us.

I recently visited a young man in the hospital. He suffered a stroke a few months ago and was being treated for an infection around his heart. It was obvious that he was experiencing both pain and fear. Yet, when I asked him how he was doing, he replied: “Well pastor, I am alive. So, I am doing better than I deserve.”

Aren’t we all? For who on earth did anything to “deserve” the gift of life?

This holiday season let us share our gifts freely, without restrictions, without conditions. Let us love our neighbors as we have been loved by God.

And this Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for grace, because if we are alive, we are doing better than we deserve.

It’s November

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It is November, and our world seems to get darker by the day. Sunny days are few and far between. There is a leak in our roof. Our car needs new brakes. A friend has let us down. Politicians continue to disappoint. Refugees despair as doors close. An airliner crashes killing hundreds on board. ISIS marches on. GI Joe was not the hero we thought he was. Promises have been broken. Trust has been betrayed. Relationships have failed.

It is November, and in a few days, we are somehow, someway supposed to gather around a table and a turkey and be grateful.

And this year, for the very first time, there will be an empty chair or two around that table. There will be sorrow, and there will be grief around that table. This year, there will be despair around that table.

During a famine, a widow once told Elijah: “I only have a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am going to prepare one last meal and gather around the table one last time with my family. And then we will die” (1 Kings 17).

Elijah responded: “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: the jar will not be emptied, and the jug will not fail.” And Elijah was right. The widow and her family were able to eat from that jar and that jug around that table for many days and endure the famine.

This is how we can gather around a table and a turkey and be grateful this November. Because despite the dark and damp days, despite the closed doors and the shattered dreams, despite the sorrow and the grief, God promises that our jars will not be emptied and our jugs will not fail. God promises that hope will never disappoint us, for God’s love for us never ends.

The good news is that with the help of God we will endure these dark days of November until hope springs eternal.