My Holy Night

As I suspect is true for a lot of us, many of my earliest Christmas memories have to do with all the festivities of the holiday season. I remember trips to visit family…and the decorating of Christmas trees (with meticulously hung pieces of tinsel, no less! Who uses tinsel anymore?). I remember standing in line to see department store Santa’s…and – of course – I remember the joy of tearing into brightly wrapped gifts on Christmas morning. But among all these festive memories, there is one that stands out for its decidedly different tone – and for the way that it continues to shape the thing I long for most at Christmas.

My father was a singer – and a good one! Trained at a well-known music conservatory, he had sung with symphony orchestras, in musical theater productions, and in countless churches. So it’s really no surprise that in the small-town church of my childhood, he was one of the ‘anchor voices’ in the church choir. But at our congregation’s annual Christmas Eve service, my dad would leave the choir. He’d sneak away into the balcony, positioning himself where he couldn’t be seen. Then – during that portion of worship where candles were lit and the Christmas Story read – he would sing, “O Holy Night,” his voice filling the sanctuary like sacred incense – and filling me with pride (because – after all – that was my dad).

But more than allowing me to hear the voice of my father, those moments introduced me to the voice of The Father. They awakened my soul to what the ancient teachers of the Church called the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”—the tremendous and fascinating mystery that is the holy presence of God. And I suppose it must be said…that to this day…the thing that I most desire in the Christmas season is that God will allow me to experience again those moments of sacred wonder—moments when lights and music and the closeness of family and friends become the doorway to something even deeper and more life-changing: the reality that God Is with Us.

Thankfully, the awareness of God’s holy presence is not limited to candlelight worship services on Christmas Eve. God can slip into our lives in all kinds of unexpected ways and at all sorts of unexpected places…which is kind of what the Christmas story is all about. How and where will you discover the holy mystery of God’s nearness this Christmas?

My dear friends, I’m thankful for all the ways that you have been the presence of Christ to me this year. And I pray that God will fill your season with “O Holy Nights”…and “O Holy Days”…and with countless reminders that you are loved with an everlasting love.

 

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My Merry (and Ambivalent) Christmas

Like a lot of folks, I enjoy Christmas about as much as any time of the year. Many of my favorite songs are Christmas carols. Since I attended college in Williamsburg, Virginia, I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for colorful Christmas decorations and the warm flicker of glowing candles. And even though I might lament the commercialization of the season, giving and receiving gifts is still a lot of fun.

But having said all that, I also find that my typical observance of Christmas leaves some points of discomfort in my heart. For all their beauty and familiarity, I know that many of my favorite carols present a highly sanitized view of the holiday — all glory and peace and a beautiful babe in a manger, with very little of the agony and struggle of being a poor, unwed mother giving birth in a stinking animal barn. While all the decorations might be a completely appropriate way to celebrate the joy of a Savior’s birth, I can’t help but wonder if that same Savior might prefer that we focus more on being lights than on stringing them. And as for the gifts…well, ignoring completely the issue of “seasonal commercialization,” I simply find that more and more these days, I struggle to “find the perfect gift” for people who – in truth – don’t need anything (which reminds me, of course, that as much as I like receiving gifts, I don’t need anything, either).

Perhaps my misgivings about the season are captured in the title of a book by Pastor Mike Slaughter: Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. In the book, Slaughter comments, “At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the Messiah who was born not only to die sacrificially for us but also to show us how to live sacrificially…Most folks would rather have a holly, jolly Christmas than to give themselves as a ‘womb’ for an honest-to-God Christmas miracle.”

How would the Jesus who we meet in the gospels want us to celebrate His birthday? With songs and decorations and presents? Sure. But perhaps even more with moments of stillness and prayer and waiting on God. Perhaps even more with deeds of compassion and forgiveness and reconciliation. Perhaps most of all with hearts that aren’t looking back to see the Child in the manger, but are looking around to see this same Savior at work in the world, so that we can join Him there.

I pray that all of you will have a very Merry Christmas. But amid the merriment, let’s remember: Christmas is not our birthday. May our celebration bring true honor to the One whose birthday it is.

Slow Enough to Give Thanks

On Monday of this Thanksgiving week, I was diagnosed with a case of strep throat and put on antibiotics. Naturally, this isn’t the way I would have chosen to kick-off the holiday, especially since I plan to travel later in the week in order to enjoy my first visit with immediate family in several months. But as it turns out, my unexpected bout with minor illness has actually turned out to be something of a gift.

Left to my own devices, I’m sure that I would have found some way to cram as much as possible into the days before my holiday departure. After all, my work as a pastor offers me a never-ending supply of visits that could be made, sermons that could be researched, and ministries that could be planned. But since my mind is a little on the fuzzy side (and since I have no desire to share my contagion with others), I’ve had to content myself with slowing down a bit. I’ve done some sleeping and some reading. I’ve sent a few emails and made a few phone calls. And somewhere amid this temporary downshift, I’ve been reminded–in more than a cursory way–that I’ve got a lot for which to be thankful.

Given the opportunity to reflect, I’m freshly cognizant of what a full year this has been. I’ve left one church family and have accepted a call to a new one. I’ve said goodbye to a number of dear friends and have begun the joyful (and sometimes exhausting) work of building new relationships. I’ve sold a home (no easy feat, given the current state of our economy) and have moved into a new neighborhood. And along the way there have been questions and fears and prayers and tears and–most of the time, at least–a genuine sense that God is working His purposes out.

Of course, I still hope to be more-or-less “completely healthy” by the time Thanksgiving Day rolls around. But for today, I’m thankful for this minor illness, which has helped me to go slow enough to give thanks. And to all my friends – both old and new – I wish for you a “Slow Thanksgiving.” May God give you enough unhurried moments to see His presence and His blessing.

A River Runs Near It

I did a little cycling this afternoon, and my path took me down the hiking/biking trail that runs along the Ararat River as it winds its way through my hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina. It was a picture perfect afternoon, with the clear water of the river framed by blue skies, distant mountains, and the fading artistry of autumn leaves. As I rode, I was reminded of these verses from Psalm 46:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.

Years ago, the professor in one of my Old Testament classes suggested that these words – rather than being an inspirational description of the Holy City – were actually an expression of faith and hope. Because there was no river in Jerusalem. Just the trust (as the Psalm goes on to say) that

God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

Of course, I’ve not had the chance to visit Jerusalem. So I can’t testify one way or the other to its rivers and streams (or the absence thereof). But for this afternoon at least, my heart could certainly resonate with the idea of a river “whose streams make glad.” And the gladness came, I think, not from the beauty of the river (although the Ararat certainly was beautiful today)…nor from the utility of the river (although I’m sure that Ararat serves some useful function as it flows through Mount Airy)…but from the simple “is-ness” of it—from the fact that “there is a river” that flows through my hometown, just like there is a God, who allows his good and beautiful and gracious Spirit to flow through me.

So thank you, Father, for time to ride…time to notice…and time to give praise to You, who are my all.

 

Respect for the Living

I conducted a funeral recently. I must confess: funerals are not my favorite part of being a pastor. But I am humbled by the opportunity that I’m given to walk with families through times of significant loss. And I take seriously the responsibility of helping people see grief through the lens of God’s gracious love, given to us in Jesus.

One element of the funeral experience that still has a surprising power for me is the drive from the chapel to the cemetery. I don’t know what other people do with those moments, but for me they are usually silent ones—used to reflect on the comments that have been shared in worship and that will be shared at the graveside. But the thing that makes the drive “surprisingly powerful” is the way that the community responds to the funeral procession as it passes.

You need to understand; I spent the early years of my ministry in a very busy, urban area. In that environment, there was no way that you could stop traffic for a long line of cars, making their slow trip to the cemetery. So after a funeral ended, the time for the graveside service was announced, and people generally got there as well as they could…by whatever route they could.

But here in Mount Airy (and, I’m sure, in other small towns throughout the South), we still make that slow and solemn journey of grief together, and—in an amazing way—the town grieves with us. People let the parade move along uninterrupted, regardless of what the traffic lights say. And many drivers still pull off to the side of the road as a sign of respect for the deceased.

Now, as a sign of respect, this practice of pulling off the road does seem to have a certain “holy appropriateness” to it. It helps us remember, I think, that we truly are connected to one another in a deep and sacred way (regardless of whether or not we like to admit it). I’m reminded of the famous passage from the 17th century poet, John Donne: “No man is an island; entire of itself…Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

But I also wonder—in this case, at least—if our practice is somehow backward. Don’t get me wrong; it is a good thing to pull over for a passing funeral. But the fact is that we’re paying respect to someone who can no longer appreciate it. At the same time, we rush and speed past living souls…persons created in God’s image and made uniquely for His purpose…individuals who certainly deserve at least as much respect as we show to those who are deceased. As theologian C.S. Lewis reminds us:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses…to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you meet may one day be a creature which—if you saw it now—you would be strongly tempted to worship…or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.” (C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity)

I’m sure that my work will continue to involve me in funerals. And I suspect that members of our community will continue to show respect by pulling over as funeral processions pass (at least I hope they will). But maybe once in a while, we ought to pull off to the side of the road (or stand off to the side of the hall) and pay attention…because passing by us is a glorious procession of God’s children, all so valuable that Jesus Christ would give his life for each and every one. Maybe then, we’d show some respect for the living. And wouldn’t that be a practice worth celebrating?

House Hunting with Jesus

As some of you know, my family and I have started looking for a permanent home in Mount Airy. In many ways, of course, that has been a lot of fun. It’s exciting to see new places and to dream of what you might do with a house once you moved into it. But the process has also been more than a bit frustrating—as I’m sure you can understand. After all, there are so many questions to ask: Is this a neighborhood where our little girl will find friends? What structural or mechanical problems might be hiding behind these freshly painted walls? Can we afford this? Then there are the “close-but-not-quite” scenarios: If only this house had another bathroom. If only the closets were a little bigger. Then, too, there are those occasional houses that you walk into and think, “Oh my…what were they thinking?!”

I can’t help but wonder if similar thoughts run through Jesus’ mind when he thinks about making his home in us—both as individuals and as a church. After all, the Bible does say that “we like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). Does Jesus get excited dreaming about all the things he might do with us if our hearts became his home? Does he agonize over all the questions there are to ask: Is this a place where my children will be welcomed? What problems are hiding behind this well-kept facade? Does he, too, encounter “close-but-not-quite” scenarios? If only she would let me heal her of this pain? If only he would turn this sin over to me? If only they would be more passionate about my mission? Are there even occasions when he steps in—eager to find something great—and ends up saying, “Oh my…what were they thinking?!”

Bob Bennet is a Christian singer/songwriter who gives us some insight into the “house hunting Jesus.” In a song titled, “You’re Always Welcome Here,” he writes…

Lord, I hear you knocking. You’ve been knocking at the door.
How long have you been waiting? Seems I never really heard You before.
I’ve kind of let the place go; I’m ashamed of what You’ll find.
But You can make yourself at home, if You’re sure that you don’t mind.
‘Cause when I cry, the roof leaks. And when the wind blows, the walls are weak.
But a house is known by the company it keeps.
And I feel better, now that You’re near. And I want to make it clear:
Jesus from now on, You’re always welcome here.

I’m sure that my family and I will eventually find a house, and I do ask for you to pray for us along the way. But maybe even more, I hope you’ll pray that Jesus will find a home in me…in you…and in the family that we call Calvary Baptist Church—because the good news of the Gospel is that our Savior longs to make his home in us. And I pray with all my heart that He’ll always be welcome here.

A Moving Experience

It seems like it’s been a long time coming, but the members of my family—wife Teresa, daughter Windham and dog Mae—have finally arrived in Mount Airy. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for all the prayers and words of encouragement that many of you have offered for us over the course of the past couple months, nor can I say how deeply I appreciate Gray and Mary Jane Shelton (who brought us a “mid-move” meal)…along with Marvin Beasely, Lowell Layman, Bob McPherson, Ken Nowlin, Drew Nowlin and Owen Stone (all of whom turned out to help us unload the truck).

As it usually does, the process of unloading the truck got me thinking: Gee, I have a lot of stuff!! Of course, I know I’m not alone in that. Especially for anyone who’s been married for awhile…or who has a child or two…it can be downright mysterious how our hoard of “things” just seems to grow and grow, even without our effort or intention. And where the powerful forces of “almost-accidental acquisition” leave off, there are equally powerful forces of “marketing madness” that work on us almost all day, every day – trying to convince us that we need the “latest this” or the “new and improved that” or the “faster and more powerful other thing.”

None of this would be a problem, of course, were it not for the fact that we follow a Savior and Lord who repeatedly made it clear that “a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.” As I’ve already mentioned once or twice from the pulpit, Jesus had more to say about the use of our wealth and possessions than almost any other topic, and most of what he said flies in the face of our prevailing cultural attitudes. Not only did he remind us that our self-focused consumption makes it increasingly difficult to live in a way that blesses others by providing for their needs. He also warned us that the worries about our financial and material well-being can quickly rob us of peace and divert our attention from where it most needs to be: the well-being of our relationships with God and others.

Sadly, an awareness of these truths doesn’t always lead to easy solutions…even for the pastor. But in a time when economic issues seem to drive so much of our personal and political discourse, maybe we take at least a step in the right direction when we come face-to-face with the almost ridiculous amount of “stuff” that most of us have – and allow the encounter to move us toward deeper gratitude and greater generosity.

Hmm…maybe I need to have a yard sale?