Nutcrackers in every shape and size

I rounded a corner at Hobby Lobby and was awed by this display of nutcrackers. And they are all 50% off!

But just look at the selection! I see Santas and snowmen, good and bad witches from Oz, magi and a lumberjack, a firefighter and a sheriff, and even the traditional ballet character in all different sizes.

I find it fascinating when “Christmas decor” morphs into characters from every walk of life. Snowmen, Santas and the nativity of Jesus have all been down this path. The Nutcracker is in good company.

I got more religious cards this year.

This year we received a total of twenty-nine Christmas cards. Unlike previous years, the religious cards outnumbered the secular by 18-11.

I broke out the religious-themed cards into two categories; those that included a baby Jesus, and those that didn’t. Eight of the cards had a nativity. Ten had images of churches, Bethlehem, snowy woods and evergreens with references to the birth of Christ.

All of the cards were very beautiful this year. I know it’s harder and harder to find scriptural cards. You have to look long and hard. But the artwork and poetry make the search worthwhile. Some of my friends sent multiple cards in an envelope, just to make sure which side won this year!

Six of the secular cards were pictures of family. That’s kind of a different category. I enjoy seeing those collages, especially when I haven’t seen them on social media.

I have to admit, we didn’t send out Christmas cards this year. Didn’t send them last year, either. We keep in touch with everyone we know all year round via social media. Sending the cards doesn’t have as much meaning as it did in the past. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Losing the physical to the digital is easy and convenient, but is a little empty compared to holding a card in your hand.

The best candlelight moment ever?

This past Christmas Eve candlelight moment felt like the best one ever.

I’ve been doing Christmas Eve for a pretty long time. As in many churches, our evening worship concludes with the all the lights out as we sing “Silent Night” while holding lit candles. The moment is meant to take us back to that night when the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem heard that the Savior had been born.

It sounds simple enough, but involves more than you might imagine. The music, lights, and open flames must be negotiated during the highest attended worship service of the year. Half of those present have never been to our church before. Some of those who volunteer to help with worship duties are absent, visiting family for the holiday. There is no dress rehearsal. It’s go time. We just say a prayer, light them up and hope for the best.

This year, the sermon was over, the offerings had been gathered, and the moment of truth arrived. I lit my candle from the Christ candle in the center of the Advent wreath and stepped forward to meet four ushers waiting for me. They each dipped their unlit candle to mine, and took the flame down each aisle so that worshipers could in turn light their candles.

The organist began quietly playing “Silent Night,” pacing the verses to match the time needed to light all the candles and help the toddlers find their glow sticks. Glow sticks for the “littles” was a new idea for us this year. And it was great. Since the sticks would glow for 8-10 hours, the kids could break them early in the evening and still have lots of light to last through the night. With no fire or hot wax to worry about, they could be a very active part of this moment.

I could see the sound technician and organist carefully watching the progress of the flames through the congregation. The ushers remembered to turn off the hallway and quiet room lights. As the organist brought up the volume, signaling that we were just about to sing, the room went dark.

Well, almost. Against the darkness of the sanctuary, hundreds of lit candles suddenly illuminated our worship space, like countless stars in the dark night sky. The timing was perfect, and from my place at the front of the church, I heard a collective gasp from those moved just as much as I was at that moment.

As our voices filled the room, it wasn’t hard to imagine the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest!” As the song concluded, I prayed, we said the Lord’s Prayer, and I gave the benediction. At the moment we blew out our candles, the lights came up and we launched into “Joy to the World.” The timing was perfect.

I don’t want any of the credit for that. It’s just a grace moment as many hands did their jobs to the glory of God.

Later that week, someone sent me an email, thanking me for my prayer I said before the benediction that night. I have to admit, I don’t remember what I said. I had to go back and listen to the end of the service, which I had streamed live on Facebook that night. My prayer went like this:

Almighty God, Heavenly Father, You said that Your Son Jesus was the light, the light no darkness could overcome. We thank You for sending that light into our world and into our lives, for shining that light into our hearts through Your powerful word, so that we can walk in the light and never in the darkness. Even if we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death, you are with us Lord, and darkness and light are always the same to you. With you we feel safe, with you we have life and with you we have light. Bless our celebration of your birth tonight and tomorrow. Thank you all your gifts of grace, for answering prayers, for unexpected blessings, for strength when we need it, and new friends along the way. Thank you for blessing our congregation and our ministry together. May we be exactly what Jesus says we are, the light of the world.

Nothing fancy. Simple always works on Christmas Eve. There’s not much I can add to the miracle of the incarnation other than thanks and praise. We had spent our season of Advent talking about darkness and light. Thanks, Lord, for making that moment real for us gathered together that night!

Celebrating Epiphany

wise menWhat is it about Epiphany that makes it so appealing? Is it because it’s usually the first Sunday of a new year? Is there something about the wise men that captures our imagination? Is it the music, from “We Three Kings of Orient Are” to “As With Gladness Men of Old”? I can’t put my finger on it, but there was certainly more energy in the air today at church than there was, say last week, the Sunday after Christmas. And I know it won’t be as easy to command their attention with the Baptism of our Lord next week.

My grandson spent about thirty minutes looking at and playing with the characters in the stable on display in the sanctuary, as three camels and three wise men joined the shepherds, sheep, cow, donkey and the holy family. For the children’s sermon I had some frankincense and myrrh for them to smell. They weren’t impressed. But they know what the gold was! They got to take a shiny gold coin with them because I had plenty – a bag of 144 for just a few bucks.

There is something exotic, mysterious, and treacherous about these visitors from the east. We’re not sure we trust them. They don’t prove themselves until they return home a different way instead of reporting back to Herod. They bring great gifts that point to Jesus’ roles as king, priest and sacrifice.

A bright star, an angelic dream, several fulfilled prophecies, and a dramatic escape – it’s just a great story, I guess.

Wine review: Swish Cherry and Swish Pomegranate

IMG_8222I received my secret Santa gift from my son-in-law Brian this year, two bottles of homemade wine, one pomegranate, the other cherry. Though I am not a wine-connoisseur, I know just enough to write a brief review of his winemaking efforts and my enjoyable consumption.

First, the pomegranate. Pretty good legs,  fruity to the nose, crisp on the palate, with a nice berry finish. You can easily drink a few glasses while watching football or binging on Netflix with a bowlful of Chex mix or chips and salsa. This wine invites you in for a good time without slapping you up the side of the head. ABV? Who knows?

Next the cherry. Not leggy at all, with a very rich, vibrant burgundy color. This wine smothers your nose with a “welcome home” embrace as you inhale the rich, formal  cherry aroma. The palette screams, “Cherry!” as this sweeter wine fills the mouth with a bucket full of flavor. The finish is brief, making you yearn for that moment when you find and bite into a whole black cherry in some ice cream. This feels like a good after dinner wine, and would go well with a decadent, chewy chocolate brownie, demanding that you, “Shut up and enjoy your dessert!” Nicely done. ABV? Not a clue.

My favorite part of the gift is the two bottles, custom etched with the vintner’s face. I don’t know how he did that, but it is really cool. I’ll post a pic after I finish these bottles.

The name on the bottle is Swish, but don’t look for it in any stores or restaurants. Once I drink this, it’s probably gone forever. But the unique, down to earth flavors will linger along with the other warm memories of our family Christmas together.

 

 

Pigeons!

My children’s sermon this morning came from the gospel, the account of Joseph and Mary coming to the temple with Jesus for their purification, where they met Simeon and Anna. Hmm. What would the kids connect with? I know – pigeons! The ancient law of Moses prescribed bringing two turtledoves or pigeons as an offering. I’ll just get a couple of pigeons. OK, not real ones, but a couple of cool stuffed ones.

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I was blessed to have my granddaughter Eden present in worship today to see the pigeons!

It was a hit. I know, because they wanted to take them home. Thank goodness we don’t have to bring pigeons anymore. Joseph and Mary brought a better sacrifice, the sacrifice, the Savior to the temple that day.

I had the pigeons out on the pulpit for the service. They’ll nest in my office until the next time I need them, a powerful reminder of God’s grace!

Christmases two and three

img_8086.jpgToday was crazy fun as we had Christmases two and three. I picked up my son, daughter-in-law and grandkids at the airport last night and got home about 10 pm. We planned to open Christmas gifts with the children this morning and our secret Santas and white elephants tonight. It was way more fun than I anticipated.

Take a pile of gifts and stir in a one, two and three year old and you have a recipe for an energy-filled Christmas “two” morning. We had so much fun with the current Paw Patrol and PJ Masks characters, and doctor kits that we didn’t want to break away for our traditional breakfast of cinnamon rolls, quiche and fruit.

We spent a good portion of a beautiful Florida December afternoon outside, playing hide and seek, swinging and following lizards and frogs. In the evening, we had a rare gathering of my whole family four generations including my wife’s parents, our three children and their spouses, plus the three grandkids. As Elijah began grace by saying, “Our Father, thank you for this food…” I felt incredibly thankful for this rare moment of togetherness.

After a supper of filet mignon, salad and curly fries, we had Christmas “three” and opened the hand-made secret Santa presents we made for each other and chose our white elephant gifts. Our evening was blessed with laughter, personally crafted gifts and the best gift: togetherness. There’s a gift I wouldn’t exchange for anything else in the world.

With family spread out around the country and work commitments that limit travel, time together is a rare moment and precious gift. img_8083.jpg

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What do the holidays do to you?

denise-johnson-426641As I was browsing through some stories and articles on Medium, I ran across this curious statement: “The holidays do things to some people.” So I began to wonder, “What kinds of things?” Not necessarily bad things. Hopefully good things, too.

The holidays make some people very generous. They give a lot to those whom they love as well as to strangers and causes of every size and shape. That’s a good thing, right?

The holidays make some some very family conscious. There is an underlying expectation that family will gather to celebrate, making it necessary to get time off, plan travel, pack and head out with zillions of other people to make the journey “home.” That’s good, right? Pretty much, unless you’ve neglected that dimension of your life for the past year, making it feel like you’re in an awkward roomful of strangers who don’t know each other very well.

The holidays are a whole bucket full of stress for some. That’s probably not a good thing. Folks become more and more snippy as the season unfolds. Too much to do, not enough time, and unrealistic expectations sap tidings of comfort and joy from their lives.

The holidays drive some to excess. It’s so easy to spend too much, drink too much, schedule too much, and eat too much. Probably not good.

The holidays sometimes prompts you to reflect on your life, the year past, your relationships, and the stuff you have. Such reflection can generate gratitude, make you dream, help you set goals, and maybe try something new. That one sounds good to me.

What do the holidays do to you?

My favorite thing about Christmas

me-preaching-at-cantata.jpgWhat do I like the most about Christmas? Preaching. The chance to get up in front of a congregation and preach the word. Tell the story, explain the implications of the story, invite my listeners into the story, and challenge them to be a part of that story.

Gifts, food, family, music, Santa, lights, Grinch, decorations, cookies, cards, trees, shopping, travel, candles, nativity — it’s all great. But nothing compares to preaching.

If you’ve never been a preacher, you might not understand. :”Oh, you have to work on Christmas Eve? And on Christmas Day? Too bad.” Yeah, you’re right. I don’t get to go away to be with family on Christmas.

But I get to preach! I like to preach anyway. That’s one of the reasons I pursued this vocation. Even though it’s hard work, I enjoy preaching the word, and I especially enjoy preaching the big days: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and I guess you’d have to include Reformation. Those are high energy days at church anyway. The adrenaline is pumping, the music is moving, and the people are there.

Plus, for the most part, you don’t have to do that much. The story is compelling on its own. You don’t have to add much to the story of Christ’s birth to touch hearts with tidings of comfort and joy. God does all that for you on this and other big days in the church year.

I can’t speak for every pastor, but I’ll bet they share my sentiment. You can’t give me a greater gift than the chance to preach!