Posts Tagged ‘Christmas

02
Jan
23

Captain Obvious

I don’t usually do this, but what the heck! It’s a new year, so why not start it by doing something different?

I will rudely ask: What did YOU get for Christmas?

I ask you that question for the same reason most people do: because I am bursting with excitement to tell you what Santa brought me!

Sure, there was the power tool battery and charger (thanks, kids. Love it!), and the thermal blanket for my smoker (so Joan and I can have some delicious ribs, even in the dead of winter), and a HARMONICA from my beloved. 

But here is a picture of my favorite present of all: My CAPTAIN OBVIOUS SOCKS!

I love this present a LOT. Mainly because it is a present that showed some genuine insight by the giver of the person on the receiving end.

Because I AM Captain Obvious. Long before he became a character in the GEICO commercials, Captain Obvious was my alter-ego.

  • I am that guy who will turn to you in the fourth quarter of the football game and say, “You know, if we want to win, we’re going to have to score more points than them.”
  • I am the guy who pours out the last glass of orange juice and says, “Looks like we need some more!”
  • I am also the guy who walks outside, feels the droplets on his head and ventures forth with, “Hmmmm. It’s raining.”

Believe me… I could continue listing examples that further establish my Captain O bonafides, but we’ll hold it there with those three.

See, it’s not easy being Captain Obvious. For obvious reasons. People usually greet your prescient insights with such retorts as, “Duh!” Or “No kidding?” Or by sarcastically restating your name with, “Thanks, Captain Obvious.”

But here is the thing: over the years, I have discovered there are a few things that SHOULD be obvious that really aren’t. 

It is not always obvious, for example, that misfortunes seem much worse when we are right in the middle of them than they do with the benefit of hindsight. When Marsha Westbrook told me in the sixth grade, for example, that she didn’t want to be my girlfriend anymore, it felt like the end of the world.

It wasn’t. 

Not even close.

Or when my cute, little advertising and public relations company went belly up in 1997, it cut me to the core. It was my LIFE! It was my IDENTITY! But it was also the thing that was keeping me from answering the real call God had on my life.

I also think it is (or should be) perfectly obvious to every person alive that they were created by an infinitely loving Being… a Sentient Being which continues to love them completely, unconditionally, relentlessly, and irrationally. The evidence of that astonishing love – in my humble opinion – is EVERYWHERE! Even a casually opened pair of eyes should be able to see it, shouldn’t they?

But alas… no. 

Millions and millions of people today will wake up, walk through their day, and lay their head down tonight believing they are nothing more than a randomly assembled group of atoms, totally at the mercy of an aloof, uncaring universe.

And so, at the risk of restating the painfully obvious, I will continue my quest. When they are behind, I will tell my teams to get busy and score more points. I will suggest a trip to the store for more orange juice (or milk, or peanut butter, or laundry detergent) whenever I encounter an empty container. I will suggest an umbrella to deal with the current downpour…

… I will also keep reminding you and you and YOU that even when it is NOT obvious, you nevertheless are unique, unrepeatable miracles of creation, sustained by a God who gave everything to express his love for you.

Duh. Obviously.

Abundant blessings;

22
Dec
22

SAVED

Passengers on the Titanic knew it.

Jews living in the ghettos of Warsaw in 1939 knew it, too.

No one knows it better today than the citizens of Ukraine.

It certainly was a routine part of the consciousness of people in Israel 2,022 years ago.

But I wonder… do we know it?

More specifically, how often do those of us who live in the developed, non-Ukrainian world of A.D. 2022 pause to think about the subject of salvation?

Salvation is a real question for people who are starving. It is absolutely not a hypothetical matter for the unhoused. Women trapped in abusive relationships, men writhing in the grip of addiction, children hiding from a deranged gunman under their desks, all cry out, “SAVE ME!” with a fierce urgency.

But what about the rest of us? How do we understand this? How acutely do we each feel the need for salvation?

Medical science has saved most of us from plague, polio, pertussis, pox, and other diseases. Seat belts have saved millions of people from violent death in car accidents. Central heating and air-conditioning have saved people from the consequences of extreme weather.

[If only there were a technological breakthrough that could save us from our own bad decisions!]

But some niggling intuition tells me that NONE of these are what God meant when God told Joseph to name his Spirit-conceived son, “Jesus,” which means, “he will save.” (“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21, NRSVU).

Yes. That promised salvation most certainly included all Jesus’ contemporaries. But can we grasp that it also includes ME? And YOU? And people who have never heard the name of Jesus? And people who have heard the name, yet who turned away and said, “Nope. No thanks.” 

So many questions…

  • How is this possible? How does it even work? How, exactly, has Jesus saved me from my sins?
  • Is this salvation thing like some kind of cosmic “Get Out of Jail Free” card, handed out equally to everyone at birth? And if so, does that mean sin has no consequence?
  • Is it universally available, or do we need first to consciously accede to a set of principles and practices before we receive this salvation?

I am embarrassed to admit it, but I must. Even though I have a Master of Divinity degree, have been examined by superiors and found worthy, have been properly ordained by a representative of a mainline Protestant denomination, I can’t confidently answer ANY of those questions. 

All I can tell you for sure is that Jesus’ saving act BEGAN at his birth, CONTINUED throughout his life and ministry, and came to FRUITION at his death and resurrection. 

I can also tell you that this Supernatural Salvation Symphony built a heretofore unheard-of BRIDGE between heaven and earth… between life and death… between the Creator and the Creature… between Spirit and Substance. 

Finally, the only other thing I can really say with any degree of certainty is that MY life, and the lives of millions of other poor wretches like me, has been forever transformed by the miracle that began in a dirty manger in occupied Israel… and that I will yearn to share this Good News with everyone until I draw my last breath. 

To all those hard-working seminary professors who spent hours and hours honing and refining their soteriology lectures, I send my sincere apologies. You did your best. 

I only know that Jesus’ gift of salvation is the best gift I have ever received. And like the little drummer boy, the only gift I have to offer him in return is my song and a heart full of praise.

Abundant blessings;

12
Dec
22

Excluded

They were all there. 

Standing close. Knowingly nudging each other. Laughing. 

Sharing so much more than space and time.

They were sharing themselves.

It was the place I desperately wanted to be but couldn’t.

I watched them and ached. 

Left out.

At one time or another, each of us has known the pain of standing on the outside looking in. We know that pain because belonging is a core human hunger. Some contend that the central truth of the Genesis creation story is the reminder that we were divinely created for connection with others. 

When that connection is missing in our lives, we seek it as ferociously as a mother seeking her lost child. 

This time of year can be a time when those vital human connections are revived. When we seek the warmth and shelter of community. When we revel in relationships. Hearths are kindled, carols are sung, and hot toddies are poured, as much to warm our souls as our bodies.

Which makes it even more important to recognize that this season can also serve as a stinging reminder of emptiness for some of our neighbors. As they watch us clink our cups of wassail and deck our halls, they feel a deep stab of loneliness, reminded of a joy they once felt.

There we are, gathered gaily around the hearth while they stand outside in the cold, sobbing at the window.

I am not sure I have ever referenced Saturday Night Live here in this space, but there’s a first time for everything! Just this past Saturday, December 10, the cold open sketch (called, appropriately, Blocking it Out for Christmas) was all about the time-honored practice of using the Christmas season as a time to stuff down all our fears, anxieties, griefs, and sorrows and pretend to, “eat, drink, and be merry.” 

Here is that link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRjjKVRaAik

My prayer for today is that we each remember we don’t have to “block it out,” or ignore the pain that can often be the unwelcome guest at our Christmas celebrations. Instead, let this season be a reminder that just as God became “enfleshed” as a tiny baby, we are each called to similarly enflesh our love for one another in practical acts. 

Abundant Christmas blessings;

28
Nov
22

Remembering

“I’m sorry. I forgot.”

If I had a shiny new quarter for every time I’ve uttered those words in my life, I would be a moderately well-off man. 

And although I am getting up there in total birthdays, I can’t blame this forgetfulness on my age. I have suffered this affliction for a long time. 

I don’t discriminate in my forgetting. It doesn’t matter whether it is a birthday, the last location of my car keys, the first name of someone I just met, the capital of Vermont, or what I had for lunch yesterday. Anything and everything is likely to slip through the holes of my sieve-like brain. 

It is sad. It is often embarrassing. It is something I would love to do something about.

But you know what? I strongly suspect I am not the Lone Ranger in this.

In fact, the act of forgetting seems to be almost as central to the human condition as, say, walking upright or possessing opposable thumbs.

In the Old Testament section of the Bible, we regularly see God acting in miraculous, supernatural ways on behalf of the Israelites. But it only takes a minute after God turns the Nile River into blood, for the Israelites to go back to their old complaining, contentious ways. Over and over and over again, God has to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Remember? Remember back when you were slaves in Egypt and I came to your rescue? Remember that whole ‘parting the Red Sea’ thing? Yeah. That was me.”

Fast forward to the New Testament and we see Jesus breaking bread with the disciples just before his arrest and persecution, telling them, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, NRSV). 

It is because of our unlimited capacity to forget that we need four candles to remind us that God’s incarnation in Jesus is about love, and joy, and peace, and faith. It is because of our Swiss Cheese brains that we need evergreen wreaths to remind us that God is eternal, with no beginning, middle or end. We give gifts to others at this time of year, yes, as a way of telling them how much they mean to us, but also as a way of remembering that God’s love is a pure, undiluted GIFT we’ve done nothing to earn. 

For some, this season is a time of joy. For others, it is a time of stress and overwork. For others, it is a season of sorrow, bringing painful reminders of loved ones who are no longer with them. 

I pray that whatever this time of year is for you, that it is first and foremost a time to remember the reckless extravagance of God’s love for this world and for YOU specifically.

Abundant blessings;

24
Dec
21

Why Give?

It’s Christmas… the season of giving.

But why? 

I mean, why do we give? I am not ONLY talking about Christmas giving. I’m talking about any kind of giving.

I puzzled on this one for a while and came up with a few answers. To wit:

  • Sometimes we give because it’s a tradition. It’s expected.
  • Sometimes we give because someone needs something, and we have the means to provide it.
  • Sometimes we give because we feel the need to TANGIBLY express our love and affection to someone.
  • Sometimes we give because we feel insecure about the status of a relationship and believe that giving will help strengthen and shore it up with “stuff.”
  • Sometimes we give because we just have too damned much money and we don’t know what to do with it. [I cannot personally relate to this one].
  • Sometimes we give because we want another person to feel they are in our debt.

And so on.

It didn’t take a lot of sweat to come up with this list because every one of these reasons (except for the “too much money” one) has motivated my own giving in the past.

But what if I asked you to look through this list – including any others you might add to it – and choose which Giving Motivator best describes the true spirit of CHRISTMAS giving?

Honestly, I think every gift you’ll find under your tree might well be wrapped in one of these motivators. But I am not sure anything listed here actually lines up with the motivation that was behind the Original Christmas Gift

And by Original Christmas Gift (OCG), of course I mean JESUS!

And so, the two questions I am wrestling with here at Christmas Eve Eve 2021 are: #1 – What was God’s motivation in giving us God’s Own Self, in the flesh, as the OCG? And #2 – How might MY giving (Christmas and otherwise) more closely reflect that same motivation?

What do you think?

Right off the bat I am going to have to rule against “To show us God’s love” as a possible answer to the first question. Regular readers of the Bible will know that God was in the business of showing love to humans from page 1 onward. 

Heck, the very act of creation was an act of love. 

Similarly, I am going to go ahead and pre-emptively rule against the answer, “Because God was bored and needed something to do.”

I believe that “the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14, NRSV) for one basic reason; to demonstrate the life-and-world changing power of self-giving, sacrificial love

It didn’t just cost God something to stoop down and pitch a tent here with you and me. It cost God EVERYTHING! It was a gift of epic proportions… given with no expectation of receiving anything in return. 

The OCG was a gift that was supposed to say to us, “Hey! THIS is what giving is all about. This giving is willful self-emptying. This giving lies at the very heart of Who I Am and who I call YOU to be also.” 

“Oh, and by the way… THIS giving is what changes the world.”

And it did, too.

As far as any kind of answer to the second question I posed (I.e., “How might MY giving (Christmas and otherwise) more closely reflect that same motivation?”), I am still chewing on that one. But I think it has something to do with trying to make sure that any giving I do in the future is an authentic GIVING OF MYSELF rather than any of those other reasons. 

That’s all for now. I am not sure I have even come close to the right answers to those questions, but I would LOVE to hear what you think. 

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to you and yours. This year, give someone the gift of YOU!

Abundant blessings;

13
Dec
21

Jesus and Santa

An image of Jesus thought to be more realistic, based on archaeological records of the people from that
place and time.

On our morning walk today, I saw a sign in a neighbor’s front yard that read: “JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON.”

And being the eager Jesus follower I am, I responded with a hearty, “Heck yeah! That’s right, brother/sister/non-binary ally, whoever you are! You’re telling some serious truth right there.”

In that moment, I was caught up in that perennial Yuletide fervor that requires Christians to moan and wail about the gross commercialization of “our” sacred season. “Fie on Santa and his elves and all of their heathen merry-making! People need to focus a lot MORE on the story of God’s miraculous, world-changing incarnation and a lot LESS on finding the best recipe for homemade EGGNOG!”

And of course, that is all true.

But what if… what if it turned out that there was a way for Jesus and Santa to peacefully coexist at this time of year? What if really IS a place for Santa and tinsel and cookies and all those other “trappings” of the Christmas season alongside the manger of Bethlehem? I mean, what if ONE face of the Christmas season did not necessarily have to negate the OTHER?

Pictures of Real Santa Claus

How would that work, exactly?

I think it just might start with the recognition of all the ways that COMMERCIAL Christmas and HOLY Christmas overlap. For example, both celebrate the spirit of GIVING. Both accentuate LIGHT overcoming DARKNESS. And both of them make the FAMILY the center of attention, right?

I am sure this list goes on and on, but the point I am trying to make is: Jesus and Santa might not be quite the adversaries we usually depict them to be. In fact, with Santa’s eternally jolly nature and Jesus’ inclination to love his neighbor as himself, they might even get along quite famously!

However… in spite of the considerable areas of “missional overlap,” there really is one area where Jesus and Santa drastically diverge. And that is the area of THE GIFTS THEY COME TO BRING US. 

In this area, the differences between the two could not be starker.

That’s because Santa comes to fulfill temporal wishes.

 Jesus comes to bring eternal hope.

Temporal wishes are the things you write down on the list that you give to your loved ones (sorry… I mean that you send to the North Pole). They include things like a new FitBit, a new power saw, warm socks, a KC Chiefs stocking hat, and a kayak.

These things may or may not come. If they do, you feel kind of, “joyful and triumphant,” don’t you? 

… for about three days.

If they don’t come (like the new basketball I asked for when I was ten), you feel left out… ignored… forgotten.

Eternal hope, on the other hand, is a totally different kind of gift. The word “eternal” is probably an obvious clue about the nature of this gift. It is the gift that REALLY keeps on giving! It is good NOW, TOMORROW and keeps on being good for your entire life (and beyond!).

It is also available to EVERYONE. Not just those who have a rich benefactor. 

And finally, it is the gift that is perfect for all who receive it. It isn’t made for just one size, shape, or color person. 

I am glad there is a time of year set aside for us to give one another little trinkets and gewgaws that come wrapped with pretty paper and bows. If not for Christmas, I might never get the cool clothes Joan likes to buy me.

But I will be forever grateful that God loved me enough to send the one thing that He knew I really needed…

HOPE eternal.

HOPE incarnate. 

HOPE beyond HOPE…

In other words, his only begotten son.

Abundant blessings;

23
Dec
20

Put Some Meat On It

What has Christmas cost you… so far?

Close up Christmas gift box. Christmas presents in red and brown boxes on Christmas Tree background in loft interior copy space.

And no, I am not talking about the money you have spent on presents… or decorations… or food… or postage for all of those cards… or gas for your car.

In fact, I am not talking about the financial cost of Christmas at all. 

I’m talking about the cost of Christmas…

… To YOU. Personally.

I ask this because – for Christians at least – Christmas is supposed to be about INCARNATION… the word that derives from the Latin carne, meaning meat. Fittingly, the central event of Christmas – the birth of the infant Jesus of Nazareth – was all about God putting MEAT on God’s divine, unconditional, infinite, sacrificial, life-giving, all-affirming LOVE. 

It was history’s ultimate gift. And so we choose to memorialize that act by our own giving. 

But the point of the season is still INCARNATION… that is, putting MEAT on our aspirations. And anytime we do that, there is a cost;

  • It means instead of wishing there wasn’t such a thing as racial injustice in the world, we actually invest our own flesh and blood in helping to end it.
  • It means instead of wishing people didn’t live in poverty, we invest our own flesh and blood in helping relieve poverty for a specific person or group of people.
  • It means instead of wishing we weren’t such a polarized country, we invest our own flesh and blood in helping to bridge that fissure.

However, like most of us, I would rather ASPIRE than PERSPIRE.

I love hoisting the flag of the causes I believe in, or opining passionately on social media, or bending my neighbor’s ear about all the rotten cruelty and injustice there is in the world. 

But when it comes right down to investing my precious blood, sweat, and tears, well, let’s not get too carried away here, shall we? Let’s slow our roll and take it EASY, mmmK?

Except that’s not the actual spirit of Christmas. 

Giving gifts to friends and family is a good start. It symbolizes God’s supreme act of giving that inspired John the Evangelist to write, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NRSV).

But I believe Christmas is meant to spur us to live as GIVERS even after all the wrapping paper has been thrown into the trash. 

In order to fully celebrate Christmas, I believe we are called to “put meat on” the things we say we care about… for each of the other 364 days of the year, too. 

I believe authentically honoring the spirit of Christmas should cost us something.

Merry Christmas to you and yours. May this holiday season mark the beginning of a new life of costly giving.

Abundant blessings;

21
Dec
20

My Christmas of Shame

As the Christmas of my 12th year approached, I wanted a Sting-Ray bike so badly I could taste it.

Everybody has one,” I told my parents, although I’m not sure that was technically true. There were probably one or two 12-year-olds in Bangaladesh who did not have Sting-Ray bicycles.

The bike I did have was functional, but a little clunky. It certainly did NOT have a banana seat or cool, high-rise handlebars, or a sparkly candy apple red paint job. Those deficiencies caused me to be seriously ill-prepared in the “popping wheelies” department. 

Sting-Rays, as I’m sure you are aware, are PERFECT for popping wheelies.

My solution was to beg and beg and whine and moan and complain to my parents, beginning sometime in August. I assured them my life would be ruined if I did not soon possess a Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle. The shame, I assured them, would redound to them as the parents of The Kid Without a Sting-Ray. 

Of course, it did not enter my childish brain that I was talking about a very major purchase here. We were not what you would call poor, but with five kids and a stay-at-home mother, there was not a lot of room for extravagance at Christmas time. In all likelihood, my heart’s desire might have eaten up 50 percent of the family Christmas present-buying budget.    

Fast forward to Christmas morning. The kids all woke up early – as usual – and ran downstairs to see what Santa had brought us. We impatiently waited as mom and dad took their sweet time coming downstairs, making coffee, and pretending not to know what we were so excited about. 

Stockings were first, by law. Then came the distribution of all of the other wrapped gifts. My eyes kept scanning for a large present in the shape of a Sting-Ray bicycle, to no avail. 

When everything had been passed out, ooo’d and ahhh’d over, squealed with delight for, or grudgingly thanked for (when the gift was a six-pack of new underwear), there was still no Sting-Ray bicycle in sight. Suddenly my dad looked over and said, “Well, I guess that’s it, kids!” and then with a wink my mother chimed in, “Wait a minute, George… what is that I see out there on the front porch?”

“I don’t know,” my father implishly replied. “Why don’t we go out and look!”

We all trooped out to the porch to see what they could possibly be talking about and there – in all its glory – sat a shiny Quasi-Sting-Ray bicycle.

“Oh look, Rusty!” my father proudly proclaimed. “I guess there was one more thing left after all. And I think it is for YOU!”

My father had taken my old bike – the clunky one described above – painted the frame with some metallic, candy-apple red and green paint, and then replaced the original handlebars with high-rise handlebars and the original seat with a Sting-Ray-like banana seat. 

My father had undertaken a labor of love. He had assessed the wants and needs of his five children, weighed them against the available budget, and come up with a creative solution. He spent hours and hours in a secret place in the garage modifying my bike and turning it into the thing I wanted most in the world.

And in return for his love, hard work, and creativity, what did I do? 

I moped. I sulked. I looked down at the ground and tried to hide my deep disappointment.

I think I managed to mumble out a strained, “Thank you,” but my heart wasn’t in it. 

I knew that all of my Sting-Ray owning friends were going to point and laugh at me when I rode my homemade Sting-Ray down the street. It would be just like wearing a placard around my neck that read, “Hi there! We’re poor.” 

I was ashamed of my parents’ gift.

Today though, I am ashamed of me and the way I reacted. 

I look back on that moment with the hard-won knowledge of what it takes to raise a family. I now know that nothing matters more to a parent than lighting up a child’s face with joy. I know parents are hardwired to do whatever it takes to provide for and protect their children and that the only reward any parent ever wants for all of the work and sacrifice is a smile and hearing a heartfelt, “Thank you, dad,” from that child. 

That Christmas I gave my parents none of those gifts. 

Today, as we approach this COVID Christmas, I hope we can look past the PRESENTS and give thanks for the PRESENCE; the presence of love, the presence of family, and the presence of God incarnate, as the real gifts of this season. 

Merry Christmas and abundant blessings;

03
Jan
20

Back to the Grind

fireworksAll I can say today is a loud, “Whew!”

Another Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year/Hannaukah/Kwaanza/Festivus season has come and gone and has successfully wrung me out like a wet dishrag.

And just to make things extra merry and bright, this year Joan and I decided to add “uprooting and moving to a different city and state” to our list of holiday festivities. Based on our experience, I can safely offer you this hard-won advice: DON’T DO IT!

I am reluctant to do so, but I will go ahead and admit it; for all of the stress and strain at this time of year, it is also kind of fun. True, there is a lot of work involved in “making spirits bright,” even with our family’s low-key approach.

Even so, there is something attractive to me about the event-centered life: you know, the one that involves regular cycles of visualizing, planning, preparing, anticipating, implementing, cleaning up, and then starting all over again.

But now, here I sit, gazing out the window… with all the holiday commotion behind and not much merrymaking ahead on the horizon.

Today is just a regular old routine Friday in early January… with regular old daily routine stuff to do.

Isn’t it glorious?

As much a fan as I am of Special Events, Holidays, Mass Celebrations (such as Independence Day, etc.), and other such hi-jinks, I also realize they can easily distract us from a simple, but important truth about life: the truth that reminds us that most of the time, life happens in the “in-between times.”

You know what I mean. I am talking about those times when we aren’t popping champagne corks or lighting the fuses of firecrackers, or ripping some beautifully-wrapped paper from a lovely gift.

Life happens when we are sweeping the kitchen floor.

Life happens when we are paying the bills.

Life happens when we are chopping onions for Taco Tuesday.

Life happens when we are shaving, or bathing, or dressing, or doing the laundry, or mowing the lawn, or feeding the dogs, or taking out the garbage.

Life happens on the plains and in the valleys… not just on the mountain tops.

That is an essential part of the message of the Christmas season we just came through. The Eternal Word did not decide to become flesh in a palace surrounded by attendants, gold lampstands, and chariots.

Incarnation happened instead in a dull, uninspiring, routine place to a couple of dull, uninspiring, routine people… as if to tell us all, “See! The miraculous has a home in the mundane! Do not overlook anything or anyone in life. EVERYTHING is pregnant with possibility! Every moment can be a holy moment! The wonder of life is not confined to the moments of special celebration! Wake up and smell the roses, people! It is all right there at your fingertips!”

… or words to that effect.

The challenge for me this year – as it is every year – will be to actually practice what I preach and to recognize the daily blessings that rain down upon me.

Excuse me while I put on another pot of coffee and just soak in the moment…

25
Dec
19

Christmas Blessings to YOU!

Christmas blessings




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