Archive for December, 2019

25
Dec
19

Christmas Blessings to YOU!

Christmas blessings

24
Dec
19

Special Delivery

amazon-package-on-sorting-belt“In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Proverbs 3:6, NRSV

The doorbell rang. I hopped up from my place on the couch, headed over to the front door to open it.

No one was there, of course. I say “of course” because this is the Christmas season after all.

Our unknown visitor approached the house, dropped off a cardboard box emblazoned with the familiar Amazon smile logo, and departed to continue on with his (or her) endless list of package deliveries.

Suddenly reassured that we were not about to be visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses, a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, or a nefarious prankster, my attention turned completely to the box o’ Christmas goodies.

I immediately forgot all of the invisible people – ending with that delivery driver – who made this moment of Christmas magic happen. I no longer saw the person who studied all of the options and carefully chose THIS ONE from the website. I overlooked the person in the warehouse who printed the order, the one who retrieved it from the shelf, the one who packed it, labeled it, put it in the shipping queue, and that certain someone who loaded it on the truck.

As I sat there, gleefully tearing open my box, I became voluntarily blind to the long list of people who made that moment possible.

And I am not at all proud to admit it, but that is the way it is most of the time for me. I hungrily receive the gifts God pours at my feet without a moment’s thought about the litany of collaborators involved in bringing them to me.

Today Joan and I prepare to enjoy a quiet, low-key version of Christmas at our new home in Colorado. There will be some food, there will be carols, there will be cookies, presents under the tree, and a time of worship where we remember what this season is really all about.

And for every element of that celebration – even in its most unassuming form – there is a long supporting cast of characters who helped make it all happen.

So today I want to pause a moment and say, “Thank you. I see you…” to:

  • Delivery drivers
  • Police officers
  • City utility workers
  • Hospital staff
  • Maintenance workers
  • Pastors
  • Church secretaries
  • Church musicians
  • Pilots
  • Air traffic controllers
  • Radio and TV announcers
  • Highway crews
  • Retail clerks
  • Website designers

… and countless other people working unnoticed and largely unacknowledged to make sure the rest of us have a chance to experience the joy of this holiday season.

I also want to pray a prayer of hope for those who agonize over the absence of departed loved ones during the Christmas season. May you experience a spark of healing today… even if it is tiny.

20
Dec
19

freedom-meme-2

I’m not sure Jesus could have hit the nail any more squarely on the head than when he said this.

But here is the question that keeps me awake at night:

Do you and I really want to be set free?

Or are we instead content to stay nestled in the security of a world view that comforts us, that doesn’t challenge or push us, that reinforces our stereotypes, and always puts us on the right side of every question?

19
Dec
19

More Than Meets the Eye

Optimus PrimeThe word “transformation” continues to be popular in the vocabulary of most Christians today.

This seems to be especially true when it comes to the mission statements of Christian churches… Transforming hearts and minds with the love of Christ,” “Seeking to live as agents of transformation in a broken and hurting world,” “Transforming the world with Christ’s love,” are just a few of the examples I’ve seen.

Heck, if the name weren’t already copyrighted, I suspect many Christians today would vote to adopt the name TRANSFORMERS as a more accurate description of their mission and ministry.

Don’t get me wrong… I really like the word transformation. I have probably used and over-used it more times than I care to admit.

But sometimes I worry that this powerful, important word might become one of those good things that are used so casually and reflexively that they lose their sizzle and ultimately turn into tasteless lumps of verbal Wonder Bread. You know… just like that car commercial you really liked the first time you saw it on TV; and you kept liking right up until the moment they showed it for the 563rdtime.

Recently I got a new, helpful way to understand the power of the word transformation. It was when my niece sent me a picture of her new baby son and just gushed and cooed about what a heavenly little bundle of joy he is.

Sure, you say… that’s just what new moms do. No newsflash here.

But you only say that because you don’t know my niece. You don’t know the sleepless nights my sister spent during said niece’s adolescence wondering where she was or what would ever become of her. You don’t know about each gray hair on my sister’s head that has my niece’s name printed on it. You have no idea the level of stress and turmoil my niece has caused my sister throughout the years.

Actually, I probably don’t really know either.

And so you really can’t appreciate what an unbelievable miracle it is for me to step back and look at this picture of my niece, cradling her precious baby son in her arms, making giant mooneyes at him, and calling him the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.

THAT, my friend, is transformation.

It made me remember a similar transformation I experienced when my first child was born. And my second, for that matter.

Outwardly nothing has changed… besides the addition of a brand new life into your world, of course.

What I mean is, I continued to be the same, lazy, self-centered, awkward, charming, clumsy, sinful human I was before the Blessed Event. None of those essential qualities magically went away.

And yet, somehow EVERYTHING was different!

I was now a DAD! I was now responsible 24/7 for the shaping of an entire HUMAN BEING! And – wonder of wonders – this human being was so small and helpless, it was utterly dependent on me and his mother for absolutely one hundred percent of his needs.

There was suddenly no margin for error… no days off… no second chances to shape the kind of person he would grow up to be.

Nothing was different, but EVERYTHING was changed. In the moment I first beheld my newborn child, I was utterly TRANSFORMED.

And when you stop a minute and think about it, what more perfect way could God have found to inaugurate the transformation of our planet than through a similar event… the birth of a baby.

I learned a whole lot about myself that day… as I am certain every new parent does.

But the two lessons that still stick with me here 43 years later are, 1.) Transformation is real and is possible for every person alive, and 2.) Transformation only ever happens from the inside out.

May our world experience abundant transformation, beginning today!

16
Dec
19

Christmas Difference

Christmas PlaceChristmas 2019 is going to be very different for me from most Christmases in my recent memory.

For one thing, Joan and I will celebrate this Christmas in a whole different part of the country. That is because on November 21 we moved from Overland Park, Kansas to Fort Collins, Colorado… as fortune would have it, just two days before the skies opened and dropped fifteen and one-half inches of snow on Fort Collins, Colorado.

Timing is indeed everything.

Christmas in a new town with new neighbors and new community traditions will probably bring an engaging hybrid of emotions of disorientation and intrigue. I am sure there is a lot of similarity in the way Coloradans and Kansans celebrate the Yuletide, but you never know…

This is also going to be our first Christmas in the past 10 years we have not been part of the Christmas Place experience. For the uninitiated, Christmas Place is the name our former neighborhood adopts between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. It is the time when all 22 homes on those two perpendicular cul-de-sacs try to outdo one another in sheer electrical voltage drawdown. If you ever saw the movie, Christmas with the Cranks, you know exactly the scene I am describing.

If I sound a little jaded and grinchy about the whole thing, it is probably because I am… a little bit. Putting the lights and displays up in November and taking them back down again in January (or whenever) is a gigantic pain in the butt. On the other hand, the delight our efforts bring to the wider community never fails to dissolve that pain completely away. Tour buses from nearby senior citizen homes and lines of cars stream through Christmas Place every evening just to “OOOO!!” and “AHHHH!!” our handiwork.

This year, however, will be a very different scene at ChezBrown. Our new Fort Collins home will have, A.) a giant wreath hung on the front of the garage, and B.) our large nativity scene in the yard.

That’s it!! (Please don’t tell the folks back in Kansas!)

But the thing that might be the most different about Christmas 2019 will be that for the first time in a really long time, I will not be leading Advent and Christmas Eve worship services anywhere! I will instead be there sitting there in a pew, holding my lovely bride’s hand, participating in a service that someone else has designed and is fretting over the details of.

And I know I will be smiling the whole time.

My heart really goes out to those clergy families who experience the entire Advent and Christmas season as a non-stop flurry of activities, deadlines, obligations, projects, and expectations. It is the usual stress of the holy season times three for these folks.

That is why, knowing that stress and turmoil as intimately as I do, I am really looking forward to experiencing Christmas from the peanut gallery, as it were. This will be a time to see whether I am actually capable of slowing down, breathing deeply, opening my eyes, and soaking in the spirit of the moment instead of feeling the need to frenetically stage-manage a hundred different projects, all building to a climactic crescendo at 12:01 a.m. Christmas morning.

But with all that will be different about Christmas 2019 at our house, I am sure many other things will be exactly the same… foremost among those the time of celebrating God’s greatest gift to the world.

So how about you? What kind of Christmas will Christmas 2019 be for you? Will it be a time of change?… a time of cherished tradition?… a time of epic busyness?… or maybe a time of deep sadness and grief?

And maybe more importantly, how will we each make it a time to recommit our hearts to giving and receiving God’s gift of unconditional, sacrificial love?

11
Dec
19

Great Expectations

Most interesting man in the worldA friend and I were recently talking about our kids… as parents are wont to do.

On this occasion, my friend was telling me about an experience his middle son had with a guidance counselor at the local high school he attended.

My friend said, “Josh is incredibly passionate about history. He has talked to Susan and me regularly about wanting to get a Ph.D. and teach at the collegiate level.”

But then, as my friend told me, Josh met with the high school guidance counselor. The counselor knew of Josh’s academic record and heard him talk about his dream of teaching history to college students.

The counselor’s guidance to Josh, however, was to aim lower, go for a Master’s degree, and teach history at a deserving high school somewhere.

“There is a lot less competition for those jobs,” the counselor told Josh. “And besides, there is a real need for high school teachers who are passionate about the subject they are teaching.”

Needless to say, when Josh went home and told his parents about his meeting with the guidance counselor, they were furious. Their anger did not stem from any unspoken bias against high school teachers. It came – as my friend told me – from the idea that a person in a position of trust and authority would use that position to dampen rather than fan the flames of ambition in their son.

“In essence, this guy was telling Josh to lower his sights and check his expectations before he is even out of high school!” Adding, “I am really not OK with that.”

His story kind of riled me up, too. But then it led me to some pondering about the whole topic of expectations and how they affect our lives.

To be human is to have expectations. We begin each new day with some kind of expectation about what will happen, who we might meet, what sort of weather we will encounter, and what type of experiences await us.

As our endeavors enlarge, so do our expectations. Then, as we move forward into the world, reality sets in and we adjust our expectations accordingly.

And if you are a person of a certain age, you have no doubt discovered something about the fluid and tricky nature of expectations. Crank them up too high and you just might smash your boat on the rocky shore of disappointment. Set them too low and you risk losing the joy that comes from looking forward to a new experience or undertaking.

My personal proclivity is to err on the side of high expectations. Every trip Joan and I take is going to be fantastically epic. Every new place where we choose to go out and eat is a Michelin four-diamond restaurant waiting to be discovered. Every new acquaintance I make is going to be “the most interesting man (or woman) in the world,” (with apologies to the Dos Equis beer folks).

Yes, my actual experiences sometimes do fall short of my grand expectations. But those occasional disappointments don’t seem to alter my expectation-making mechanism one little bit.

The Christian calendar tells us we are smack dab in the middle of the Advent season, here on December 11, 2019. Advent is traditionally thought of as a time of expectation. The first-century Israelites had been hanging on the words of the prophet Isaiah – for at least 800 years – which assured them that, “… the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2, NRSV).

They knew these words were about them. THEY were the darkness-walkers the prophet was talking about. They lived in a continual state of expectation that one day soon the promised light would indeed shine on their lives. And yet year after year, the darkness persisted.

What are your expectations this season?

… for the world… for your community… for your family… for yourself?

How do you hold fast to hope-filled expectations in the face of disappointing realities?

Where does your hope come from?

This season, what would it be like for each of us to expect love, justice, mercy, and peace to prevail in the world… and then work to make it happen?

Blessings,

09
Dec
19

Does it really matter?

Lutheran crossWe interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this breaking news: Joan and I attended church yesterday.

But not just any church. We attended a (wait for it…) LUTHERAN CHURCH!

And after the service, we turned our heads, looked at each other, and said, nearly simultaneously, “Hey… that was really nice! We should come here again.”

The reason this qualifies as headline breaking news is that I have considered myself a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool United Methodist for as long as I can remember. It is the faith I was born into, confirmed in, married in (twice), and ordained to preach in.

The origin story of the Methodist movement – midwifed into the world by brothers John and Charles Wesley – speaks to my soul. Its liturgies and worship styles comport with my ecclesial leanings perfectly… just enough ritual “pomp” to signify the gravitas of the worship moment, but not so much as to be suffocating. Its heritage of social justice advocacy resonates with the guidance of my own conscience.

There are so many things about the United Methodist way of being a Jesus follower that strike exactly the right tone with me. And yes, I am of the generation to whom denominational labels actually mean something.

And yet… the recent behavior of my “home” denomination has caused me to question whether the United Methodist Church really deserves my permanent allegiance.

Faced with the destinal (and yes, I am declaring that this IS a real word) moment of planting itself wholly on the side of justice and letting the institutional chips fall where they may, United Methodism waffled.

Rather than choosing to forge a polity that said, “All means all,” leaders of the church instead chose to say, “Let’s just fashion this really big, morally beige umbrella where those who support inclusion and those who oppose it can all exist under it together. Let’s keep the family together, no matter what kind of pain that inflicts on the children.”

So that is one HUGE reason I am a lot less infatuated with United Methodism these days.

And honestly, I am also still stinging from a world of hurt that was inflicted upon me at the end of my next-to-last appointment. If you know anything about church life, you know there is always a lot of pain being inflicted at any given moment… some intentional, some not. For me, the wounds were deep and lasting and still bring a sour taste to my mouth when I think about the place where it all happened.

I guess the question I find myself faced with in the end is: does it really matter?

That is, does it really matter if I call myself a United Methodist follower of Jesus, or a Lutheran follower of Jesus, or a Seventh Day Adventist follower of Jesus, or a “Frisbiterian” follower of Jesus (this is a sect invented by a Frisbee-throwing friend of mine who posited that when we die, our souls just fly up and get stuck on the roof)?

I think we can all agree that the answer is no… it really doesn’t matter.

In fact, if we look closely at the evidence in scripture, it would be hard to find evidence that Jesus himself had any real preference for how we might choose to follow him. When he said (in John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” I believe he was more inviting us to emulate his relationship with God rather than subscribe to a set of formal religious doctrines.

Our journey from “the one Church, apostolic and universal” to today’s eleventy-billion shades of the Christian faith does a lot to promote the understanding that choosing a faith community is all about finding the right “fit”.

But is “fit” really “it”?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But it sure is hard to stay on the journey when you’ve got blisters on your feet.




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