Thursday, December 22, 2016
Two Calls After Christmas
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow
and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human
tradition and the basic principles of this world
rather than on Jesus.”
Paul in his letter to the Colossians
She called to complain about me.
It’s a vocational hazard.
I was a little shocked because I’d heard not much happens in those days between Christmas and New Year’s Day as people regret cards not sent, gifts not given or received or exchangeable, tired feet, and gearing up after gearing down from gearing up.
Anyway, she snapped, “You ruined our Christmas Eve service with your lame sense of humor and talking about giving and insulting people who…”
It wasn’t the best start to ministry.
I was only 25 and just finishing the first six months after ordination in my first church and it was only my first Advent and Christmas and I hadn’t yet read this caution from Kurt Vonnegut after he preached at NYC’s St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Palm Sunday because he didn’t preach it until I’d already been in the business for a few years: “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God. I thank you for your sweetly faked attention.”
Looking back, I opened with a joke that’s not PC for churches who care more about not insulting people who insult God with such regularity by not…
I haven’t told the joke again on any of the last 40 or so Christmas Eves or Easter Days because there are still people hanging around who care more about not insulting people who insult God with such regularity by not…
It went like this…
A guy is greeted by Peter at the gates to heaven after dying: “Why should we let you in?”
Guy says, “I went to church on Christmas and gave five dollars.”
Peter asks, “What else?”
Guy says, “I went to church on Easter and gave five dollars.”
Peter asks, “What else?”
Guy says, “Hey, I’m like most…[fill in the blank with the name of your favorite denomination]…and thought I’d get in after going to church every Christmas and Easter and giving five dollars.”
Peter turns to the angel Gabriel and asks, “What do you think?”
Gabriel closes the book and says, “I say we give the ten dollars back to him and tell him to go to hell.”
Yeah, I said it just like that.
Wow, she was really mad at me.
Of course, then I talked about money…on Christmas Eve!
I started with a poem that she really didn’t like:
A big silver dollar and little round cent,
Rolling along together they went,
Rolling along the smooth sidewalk,
When the dollar remarked, for the dollar can talk
“You cheap little cent, you poor little mite
I’m bigger than you and twice as bright
I’m worth more than you a hundred fold
And written on me in letters bold
Is that motto drawn from our pious creed
‘In God We Trust’ which all can read”
“Yes, I know,” said the cent, “I’m a cheap little mite,
And I know I’m not big or shiny or bright,
And yet,” said the cent with a meek little sigh,
“You don’t go to church as often as I.”
Aside from the bad grammar, I haven’t recited that poem again on any of the last 40 Christmas Eves or Easter Days because there are still people hanging around who care more about…
I wasn’t finished that night which is why she wasn’t finished with the call.
I talked about an older preacher who insisted tithing not tipping is the beginning not goal of giving with a sermon titled, “God Commanded Tithing! So Don’t Blame Me!”
I talked about the apostle Paul; and said he’d like envelopes for weekly pledges and tithes and offerings because he said to put something aside every week to drop in the plate when it’s passed around.
I talked about a lot of stuff that got me into trouble with her; especially my last story to illustrate why I was talking about all of the things that annoyed her so much.
My seminary president often told us about the woman who complained about one of his sermons; which I often recall even to this day when someone complains about one of my messages because if they can complain about him, I know there’s no hope for guys like me.
Well, the church lady like my church lady said, “Why are you always talking about giving whenever you preach? All I ever hear from you is ‘give, give, give.’”
He answered rhetorically, “Have you ever heard of a better definition of Christianity than give, give, give? We give because He gave!”
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. Whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”
To show our gratitude for that eternal gift that enables existential safety and serenity, we give, give, give!
We worship Him.
We work for Him.
We witness to His love for us that’s experienced by grace through faith in Jesus.
We give because He gave.
I got another call after that one.
She said, “I hear ___ is going to call you. Pay no attention to her!”
Then she said, “You’re going to make lots of mistakes; but if you stick to Jesus and the Bible, you’ll be fine. There’s going to be people like her who want you to water down the truth so they have wiggle room; but you’ve got to tell the truth so they don’t wiggle at the judgment. Just work on your delivery a little more.”
I’ve been trying; and as I look back and as I look around and as I look forward, I recall another story told that night about what church is supposed to be all about 24/7/365.
A man watches two fellows working in the park.
One man is digging holes and the other is filling them back up.
After watching for a while, the man goes to the fellows digging and filling the same holes and asks why they are doing that.
They answer together, “The man who plants the trees is on vacation.”
I remember those two calls after Christmas whenever I’m tempted to take faith on vacation by insulting God by enabling people who…
Blessings and Love!
Salt! Shine! Leavenate!
Look up! Stand up! Speak up! Act up for Jesus!
Friday, December 16, 2016
Dreaming of Better Days Every Christmas and New Year’s Day
“Here comes that dreamer!”
“Your old men will dream dreams.”
“We had hoped He was the One to…”
“I’m dreaming of a…”
“Visions of…danced in their heads…”
“Have yourself a merry little…”
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”
“And so this is Christmas; and what have you done? Another year older and a new one just begun…”
Maybe you’ve noticed, there are lots of songs around this time of the year that express longings and dreams for better days.
But just like Joseph with his jealous brothers and Pharaoh’s hot wife or anyone who dares to dream dreams of better days whether young or old, we like to kill dreamers with bottom lines and balance sheets and reality checks and dwarfed or diminished hopes that too often dash those dreams.
I had a dream about those dreams not long after Advent 2016 commenced.
Actually, it started with a nightmare.
It was about two of my first and worst funerals.
The first was when I substituted for another clergyman less than an hour before the service began. While people grieve in different ways, I noticed this particular family was especially cranky. Not long after the service, I went to cash the honorarium. A stop had been placed on the check. I called the funeral director and said, “Walter, a stop was placed on the check. Was I that bad?” “No, Bob,” he said, “my mistake. They stopped my check too. They wanted a rabbi.”
The second was another last minute substitution. I didn’t know the deceased; but I knew the children and said, “You know, it’s like puppies. The goodness of a momma is often reflected in the goodness of the puppies.” Her husband said just loud enough for everyone to hear and for me to turn purple, “My wife wasn’t a dog.”
Fortunately, that was only the first scene in the dream.
The second was about Jeff who will always be older than me.
The dream recounted countless conversations that we have had about better days when clergy got along with each other and it was fun to go to presbytery meetings where there weren’t as many litmus tests of fidelity as we have today and when clergy and elders and deacons and trustees and members knew how to disagree agreeably. Yes, we could debate vigorously; but we never even entertained breaking fellowship.
When Jeff and I talk about that to younger pastors and denominationalists, they can’t relate because it’s not been a part of their experience for at least 30 years; and I saw their collective face of disbelief about such better days in my dream.
That part of the dream ended with Jeff looking very sad as he said, “How are we ever going to convince the world that Jesus is so good and saving if people who say they belong to Him keep hating each other and separating themselves from each other?”
The third scene was frightening.
A very angry man – someone like the gloaters and whiners and hardliners and cupcakes being in each other’s faces since November 8 – yelled, “You are wrong about so many things! You are wrong about me needing Jesus and you are wrong to have ‘What the World Needs is Jesus’ on your bank checks! We will never get along. And I won’t rest until you’re…”
It sounded like he really wanted to do a Herod on me.
I wasn’t surprised; because we’ve become so polarized in church as well as society. It’s not just Democrats and Republicans. It’s everybody. Nothing seems to bridge the gap and no one seems to be able to bring us together anymore.
But then came the fourth and final scene of my dream.
I saw the manger; and I saw animals and rich and poor and different colors and classes and cultures looking really warm and cozy and safe and happy and friendly and…saved.
I heard angels: “For to you is born a Savior! He is Christ the Lord. He brings peace on earth and good will among everybody!”
I felt hopeful again.
I felt like walking down every road of life and saying, “Yes, He is the one who can fulfill our greatest dream for it to be on earth as it is in heaven. All we have to do is stop running away from each other and start walking together with Him. Then we will be warmed…strangely… wonderfully…and saved.
Waking up, I decided never to go back to sleep.
That’s not an especially new dream for me or you or anybody who longs for better days; and everyone seems to get dreamy about it around this time of the year.
It’s a dream inspired by every worship service where Jesus is Lord by the book; and just like the Father enfleshed in the Son, it/He can happen just like that manger scene if we don’t shut the door of our hearts and let Him in.
That’s the miracle of Christmas then, now, and forever; and the only way to have happy new years.
Blessings and Love!
Salt! Shine! Leavenate!
Look up! Speak up! Stand up! Act up for Jesus!