We’ve got two Christmases

This is just the beginning…

I watched with interest yesterday as my neighbor put up his Christmas lights – on November 16, a week and a half before Thanksgiving. As he kept adding more and more to his display, I asked him, “Are you going to charge admission?” He replied, “I hope I can find the rest of my lights!” He just moved in over the summer and hasn’t yet found everything packed away in boxes. I promise to update this post when I see just how big his plans are.

Every year I take time to wonder why Christmas come earlier and earlier. If stores begin stocking shelves a day or two earlier each year, if we decorate our homes a few days earlier, and we begin playing Christmas music a bit earlier each year, it’s only logical to conclue that we will begin celebrating in October before Halloween, nevermind in November before Thanksgiving. And as soon as the first whiff of Christmas comes along, we’re hooked. We can’t resis. We have to do it!

So I have been pondering, “Why?” Why do we do this? Why do we want to do this? Why do we want to get to the celebration of Christmas as soon as we possibly can? Why are we willing to devote a whole 1/6 of the year to this one holiday? I know it is not because of Jesus. We are not that excited about his birthday. There has to be something else.

I do my best thinking when I am out walking the dog, and here’s what came to me. There are actually two Christmases. There is the sacred celebration of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And there is the Ameican secular celebration of Christmas which revolves around shopping, snowmen and reindeers, Santa and the Grinch, food and gifts. The sacred celebration is a day to observe the birth of the Savior. The secular celebration is months of being nice, feeling good, buying gifts and family traditions. These two holidays are not the same. They are very distinct. And I believe we would be a lot happier if we would just admit that simple truth and not try to or worry about combining the two.

During the church season of Advent, I’m always challenged, “Why aren’t we singing Christmas songs?” I answer, “Because it isn’t Christmas.” We will try very hard to wrap the birth of Christ with decorations and gifts and food. But he never seems to fit into that picture. That’s because he’s not about those things. He is the gift.

Let’s just admit that we’ve got two different holidays on our hands. Let’s not play Joy to the World in Home Depot or Best Buy. Let’s not try to find a place for Santa at the manger. Let’s not worry about whether or not we can publicly display a nativity. Let’s not pretend that movies on the Hallmark channel can teach us about the incarnation.

Let’s adorn our homes with trees, lights and wreaths, but let’s adorn our lives with the fruit of the Sprit. Let’s enjoy singing Jingle Bells and Silver Bells, but let’s fill our churches with the words and songs that praise our Lord for coming to save us. Let’s spend our money on gifts to exchange with family and friends as we gather in our homes. But let’s also use some of our wealth to help the least of these on the streets, those who are homeless, hungry and hurting in our communities.

It’s a win-win. You can have as much worldly Christmas as you want. You can begin whenever you desire and celebrate for as long as you want. No judgment.

You can also have all the Christmas God has in mind for you. It’s just a moment in time when the eternal God becomes a mortal man. It is an instant that changes your life forever.

Don’t try to force the two into the same box or blend the two as if they belonged together. We’ve got two Christmases on our hands, and I hope you’ll enjoy both!

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.

Burrito!

At Good News Club last Monday, we started a new unit called “Jesus: God Who Came to Earth.” The kickoff lesson, was as you might imagine, the Christmas story. Fresh from winter break and right on the heels of Epiphany, it was perfect timing.

We never take for granted that any of the kids have heard any of the bible stories, not even the biggies, Christmas and Easter. I suppose we should never assume anyone of any age has heard those stories. And we should never assume that anyone who has heard them ever tires of hearing them again. I know I never do.

Anyway, we got to the part of Christ’s birth where the angel tells the shepherds that they will find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. None of the kids knew what swaddling cloths were, so I explained that it’s wrapping up a baby like a burrito. If you do it well, the baby feels snug and secure and drifts off to sleep.

At the mention of burrito, the room came alive. Everyone wanted to share their favorite burrito. From Moe’s to Chipotle to Qdoba to Taco Bell, everyone wanted to tell me where they liked to get burritos. Every once in a while you strike a nerve, and a disinterested room suddenly erupts with excitement.

I don’t know if I have a favorite burrito restaurant, but I do have a friend who attacked and conquered one of the biggest burritos I’ve ever seen last Sunday at Mr. Pancho in Palm Coast. It was the size of a log you’d toss on a fire on a cold night. It must have weighed at least two pounds. And it must have been delicious, because it was soon just a lunchtime memory.

But I digress. When you’re telling stories, sometimes you hit it and sometimes you miss. When you hit it, it makes it all worthwhile!

Way too soon

Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

They say it’s good to step out of your comfort zone. That’s how you learn. That’s where you grow. 

OK, so this is really only a baby step. It’s something most people think is a given. But for me it’s a radical departure from anything I’ve ever experienced. 

I’m setting up and decorating the Christmas tree. Before. Thanksgiving. 

I’ve written about this before. It’s just a part of me. I grew up in a family who set up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. I was gradually drawn into a much different world where Christmas trees are set up and decorated right after Thanksgiving. i thought that was out there. 

My wife broke the news to me last week. My son and his family from TX would be here for Thanksgiving, but not Christmas. Our family would only have one day to all be together the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. So, we would be setting up our tree before that. Before Thanksgiving. 

It turns out that’s not progressive at all. The trend is to set up and decorate the Christmas tree on November 1. As soon as Halloween is over, but before all the candy is gone, it is Christmas. Black Friday prices can be had weeks before. Garden centers at big box stores are devoted to rows of pre-lit trees. Thanksgiving? Just a rest stop along the holiday highway to the holiday. 

But even that is not cutting edge. Nope. Those who truly have the holiday spirit have begun their celebration before Halloween. That’s right, their Christmas now takes up nearly one-quarter of the year. 

Holy cow. What is it about Christmas that compels us to increase its size each and every year? I’m pretty sure it’s not Jesus. He doesn’t seem to be the center of this. It doesn’t seem to be the Christmas spirit. These early celebrators aren’t any nicer or friendlier than they were last summer or spring. It’s not the gifts. People buy most of what they want all year long from Amazon. Let’s be honest – most gifts are things we don’t need or want.You know it’s true. 

So what is it? What is it that drives our obsession with Christmas that makes it happen earlier and earlier each year? 

Here’s one theory: we believe a holiday will fill the emptiness in our lives. Without some kind of celebration, our lives seem trivial, meaningless, and empty. But if we have a party, we’re alive. Important. Noticed. So we over-celebrate Cinco de Mayo, even thought we couldn’t care less what that might be about. We take extra days to celebrate Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Valentines Day, Mothers Day, Super Bowl Sunday and New Years Day. Add to that the B-list holidays of Fathers Day, Presidents Day, Administrative Professionals Day, Nurse’s Day, Boss’ Day, Grandparents Day, and in my home state of Pennsylvania, Groundhog Day. Oh, and you better not leave out your family’s birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, promotions and award ceremonies. 

Call me a Grinch, a Scrooge, or simply tired. Don’t hate me. You can celebrate Christmas as long and hard as you wish. I just want to enjoy time with my family and celebrate Jesus’ birthday on his birthday. 

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.

 

 

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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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!

Christmas cantata night

24174602_504441229935324_2031369082892135469_nTonight was Christmas cantata night at church. For the last fifteen years (it might be more or less, I really don’t know!) our church choir and a variety of other singers, actors and artists have prepared a special presentation of Christmas music and readings as a part of our Advent midweek worship services. It started with lessons and carols, progressed to a published choir cantata, grew up into a full-scale dramatic and musical presentation, and has pulled back to a more relaxed event the past few years.

Our church is blessed with lots of musical talent, including directors, voices, soloists, and instrumentalists. Of course, we are also blessed with the compelling story of Christ’s birth, one that has been set to many different musical forms. It’s a great night that has become a great outreach event for our congregation as they invite family and friends to come and see what we’ve prepared.

I wasn’t as involved as much this year as I have been in the past. I’ve been in the choir, sang solos, played guitar, acted and narrated. But this year I simply read an adaptation of an archbishop’s Christmas sermon from “Murder in the Cathedral” by T. S. Eliot. My scaled-back part let me focus on a few other tasks these past few months. Youth read scripture, the choir sang a number of pieces, and one solo rounded out the program.

I got to meet a lot of folks I didn’t know, guests of our members. I got to talk to others that I only see at this event each year. Plus I got to watch and listen to the presentation since I didn’t have to remember my lines and pay attention to my cues.

I knew most of the songs and I had been there for the rehearsals, so none of it was new to me. I have to remind myself that many are hearing it all for the first time. Many haven’t heard, read, preached, sang, and acted out the story of Christ’s birth. What would it be like to hear it and reflect upon it for the very first time. What questions would you have? What would touch your heart? It’s good to ask myself that question often anyway, so that I rediscover the impact of God’s word.

The choir really did great tonight. It helped that we overcame some challenges with the sound system and got their monitors working well. The fellowship afterwards was great. So many stayed, talked and got to know each other. Maybe that is part of why this is a popular and important event. People want to connect, they want to hear some good news, and they hunger for more than what the secular celebration of Christmas has to offer.

With just a week or two to catch our breath, we’ll be doing it again, getting ready for the Good Friday cantata. It’s a lot of work, but it’s energy well invested, and a blessing to so many!

Uh-oh. Jesus seems to be missing.

ch cardIt’s Christmas-card time again. Kind of. The numbers are dwindling. In years past, we received about fifty to sixty cards from friends we’ve made in the different places where we’ve lived. With five days to go, we’ve only received fourteen.

That’s OK. It’s a different world. We’ve been keeping up with most of our friends all year long via Facebook. No need for a Christmas letter. I get well over one hundred online birthday greetings each year. Christmas has gone that direction, too.

But of those fourteen cards, only three had a nativity. Only three depicted the infant Jesus in a manger. Pine needles, stockings, cardinals (the bird), stars, trees and candles are the predominant themes this year. Some have Christian messages, even bible verses, within, but depictions of the newborn king are few and far between.

Eight of those cards were from members of the church. To their pastor. With no Mary, Joseph, manger or baby Jesus in sight. Come on, folks, humor me. Throw me a bone! Hey, you can even draw one in. That’s good enough for me. I just want to see that baby.