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.

Too many emotions

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Here we are, just nine days away from Christmas, and I am conducting a funeral tomorrow afternoon. I know, death doesn’t take a holiday. Anything can happen around the most festive days of the year as well as those which seem quite ordinary. There really isn’t a “good” day for a funeral, is there?

But when it happens near a significant holiday, there is a challenging dynamic. It’s already an emotional time of the year, filled with excitement, memories, expectations, travel and celebration. Add to that a few tablespoons of grief, a few ounces of sadness, a pinch of fear, and a large measure of mortality, and you’ve got quite a stew of feelings to deal with.

It’s like too many emotions at once. Why can’t we deal with just one at a time? We could grieve today, then put that aside to consider our mortality, and when that’s over, spend time with family for support and comfort. It never works out that way. You have to handle all the feelings at once, from the tears of missing someone, to the joy of having family together, to the guilt of not having said or done more, to the memories stories that create laughter. You cry, compose yourself, laugh and find some comfort, only to feel the tears well up once again. You think, “I should be able to handle this,” and “I just can’t handle this” simultaneously. You’re a mess.

You know what? God created that mess. He made you. With emotions. And they aren’t a bad thing. When Jesus was born, he came with a whole set of emotions. Since he was the sinless Son of God, emotions can’t be a bad thing. They are just part of the package of being a person. Of being you. Jesus cried, grieved, felt compassion (felt like a punch in the gut), anger, despair, frustration, joy, loneliness, peace, love, amazement, and probably a whole lot more. And we like the fact that he was emotional. We can relate to that.

So it’s OK to be an emotional mess. At a funeral, at Christmas, on your birthday or on Tuesday. It’s just part of being you, someone wonderfully and fearfully made in the image of God, who by the way, is very emotional in the Old Testament as well as in the gospels. He’s jealous of you, laughs at those who challenge him, grieves over sin, gets angry at times, but loves his people to the end. What? God’s an emotional mess? Thank God!

 

 

 

 

 

A couple from out of town needs a place to stay…

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Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash

“There’s someone on the phone — they need a place to stay tonight.”

“OK, I’ll talk to them.” When I pick up the phone, I never know how the conversation will go. Even though I’ve heard the request before, it’s never the same experience.

“Hey, how can I help you?” The story was familiar but unique. Evicted, no transportation, friend picking them up tomorrow to drive them back up north, need a place to spend the night. He and his wife were at the hospital last night until they were asked to leave the ER waiting room. Now they were waiting at a gas station, calling around to find someone who would pay for a motel room.

In the “olden” days, you would work your way through the yellow pages listing of churches in the area. Today, I guess you google “churches” and find out who’s in the area. Then you start calling until you reach someone who will help you out.

I had about an hour before a scheduled visit and had just finished up a sermon for tomorrow, so I agreed to come and get them and take them to a motel. It wasn’t out of my way and it’s not a lot of money and mercy is a good thing, so I headed out the door and down the road.

On the way, I though to myself, “Shouldn’t you be more careful?” I mean, you have no idea who is on the other end of that conversation. You have no idea what they are really up to. You are just going to go there and pick up a guy and his wife and take them to a hotel?

Then I thought, “Oh, stop it. What are they going to do, rob me? I was going to give them the 11 bucks in my pocket anyway. I’m meeting them at a public place. If they look creepy, I’ll figure something out. Why don’t you try trusting God? He made sure you had extra time today. He’s got your back, you know.”

I pulled in, walked up and met one of the nicest couples I’ve encountered in a long time. They had come to Florida from Pennsylvania, couldn’t really make it here, and were headed back where they had family support. They had been married just over a year, were feeling very alone, and very, very grateful. After a short ride, the very kind hotel manager got them situated, I had a chance to pray with them, and we parted ways.

What would I do if I were in that situation? Who would I call if I had no where else to turn? I have no idea. They had more courage and faith than I did today, humbly reaching out to a stranger, any stranger, for help. I think God is starting to get somewhere with me. My gut more often tells me “have mercy” than “be careful.”

And I didn’t even see it till just now: this is Christmas. A couple from out of town looking for a place to say. No baby, but maybe someday. You know what? This is even better than being in a Christmas play or live nativity!

 

Walk through Bethlehem

web-header---201711Last night, my wife and I, along with my daughter and her family, walked through “Walk Through Bethlehem,” an annual Christmas season production by Crossroads Ministry in Daytona Beach, FL. This is the second time I have gone, but the event is in its twenty-first season. Over two weekends, around 10,000 people walk through a recreation of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, built entirely on twenty-one acres of the church’s campus. The first time I went was two years ago. This time we brought along my two-and-a-half year old grandson, with the promise of seeing a camel. (For some reason, we thought there would be a camel there, but more on that later.)

We went early this year and were some of the first to arrive on the opening night of this years event. Greeted warmly by at least half-a-dozen people, we found out seats in the auditorium staging area, where we waited for our group to be called. Groups of about twenty go on the walk at a time, and while you wait, you get to listen to some great Christmas music by live soloists and ensembles. Since we came early, our wait was short, and before my grandson had consumed two snacks, we headed out with out group to Bethlehem.

We met our “tour guide” in a small hallway, who explained that she would get us in the gate and around the city, so stay close to her. A short walk brought us to the gates of the city, where Roman soldiers made sure we paid an appropriate tax to enter the city (a whole shekel per person!). Inside we followed our guide from place to place in Bethlehem. We went through a noisy market, stopped to visit people who made candles, baked bread, ran inns, sold fruit, made cloth and owned a home in Bethlehem. After we met some young men talking to a couple of priests, we met a carpenter who was being forced to make crosses and a blacksmith who had to make large nails. We finally met up with some shepherds who invited us to stay with them outside of the city, where we heard from an angel that the Christ had been born. When we got to the stable, we got to see a real live baby Jesus, surrounded by his mother and father and a cow and a donkey. After we heard the rest of the story, from the crucifixion to the resurrection of Jesus, we left Bethlehem, but not before grabbing a cooke and some hot chocolate.

We all enjoyed our visit to Bethlehem. I am impressed by and thankful for the hundreds of volunteers who make this happen each year. From those who play the parts to those who build and break down the sets to those who made sure we heard the gospel, this is a huge event. I appreciated how each stop on the journey added a piece to the puzzle of God’s Law, our sin, and the Christmas gift of salvation in the birth of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. I got to be a part of the Christmas story along with shepherds, priests, Pharisees, merchants, soldiers, children and tax collectors.

The journey seemed shorter than my previous experience. My grandson like the sheep, cow and donkey best of all, but did appreciate the real live baby Jesus, too. He elected not to have his picture taken with a Roman soldier. (Oh, and there was no camel; that must have been a different live nativity at another church.)

Afterwards, we estimated that it would take at least three hundred volunteers to make this happen. They must begin planning the summer before. And I’ll bet every single one loves being a part of this. If you are in the Daytona Beach area, I encourage you to stop by and “walk through” Bethlehem.