Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Little Longer Christmas

The other day I mentioned to Pam that it seemed that the Christmas season had expanded to pretty much begin right after Halloween, and she said that, especially with the economy being down, people couldn’t afford to wait until December to buy Christmas presents but had to spread their purchases out over a longer period of time.  This year there may be more reluctance to use credit cards for buying presents, and by starting in early November, people have four paychecks to use for their purchases.
That makes a lot of sense.  It’s not unusual for me to pick up a present or two for Pam as early as the summer.  (The main disadvantage of which is not so much figuring out where to hide them for six months as it is remembering where I hid them six months later.)  But I have nothing on Pam.  She will use the after-Christmas sales as an opportunity to buy deeply-discounted gifts for the next Christmas.  And she shops all year long, looking for that perfect gift at the perfect price.  She doesn’t have to hide these, either, for most of them are for family members who don’t live with us.  I have been known, however, to get a Christmas gift that she had forgotten about only to discover during spring cleaning.  Which is actually kind of fun.  The point is, we have to spread Christmas out over a longer period of time, and not just for financial reasons.  I don’t know how it is for people who are not in full-time ministry, but for those of us who are, December is a blur.  We spend significant time and energy planning and conducting special worship experiences and Christmas programs, and have numerous social obligations that we have to fit in as well.  By the time the last Christmas Eve service is over, we are all somewhere between bone-tired and completely exhausted.  It’s not good form to fall asleep at your mother-in-law’s Christmas dinner, but it’s hard to avoid.  So to avoid having the Christmas season be something we can’t wait to be over and to be able to actually enjoy ourselves, we have to spread the celebration out over a longer period of time.
The very heart of Christmas was never intended to be for one month out of the year.  Christmas is about the incarnation of God—his enfleshment on earth.  Not just his presence—if you believe in the theological category of omnipresence, you believe that God is always present, has always been present, can’t be anything other than always-present.  “Immanuel” or literally “God is with us” isn’t about his omnipresence but about his being with us in flesh.  God in a bod.
Christianity has been over-influenced by Platonism and under-influenced by biblical theology regarding the body and the soul.  Platonism split the two, regarding the body—and anything earthly—as the lesser, reflected light of the soul, which was, if not heavenly, at least non-earthly, and therefore unhindered by the limitations of flesh.  Ancient Israelite theology—which is what biblical theology is—did not separate the two so neatly.  The soul was seen as the complete, whole person—which included the body.  And a body was flesh.  The afterlife wasn’t some bodiless existence, it was just with a different kind of body.  Those that believed in resurrection believed in the resurrection of the body, not merely the continuation of a person’s soul. 
The incarnation of Christ is a continual reality.  It may have begun with Mary giving birth in Bethlehem but it did not end with Jesus’ death or with his ascension.  When Paul said that we are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12) he wasn’t just using a metaphor like any other metaphor to describe the church.  He really meant it—we are now his body, his flesh.  Our hands are his hands, our feet his feet.  We are to go where Jesus would go, do what Jesus would do, say what Jesus would say—or, better yet, we are to go where Jesus went, do what Jesus did, and say what Jesus said.  We are to go to the broken places in our world, go to the broken, hurting, and oppressed people and be Christ to them.  And to those who are convinced that because of their brokenness, their hurts, their oppression, and their sin that God has given up on them we are to tell and show them that not only has God not given up on them but he loves them completely and accepts them just as they are.  That they are a part of the “us” in the name “God is with us.”
Christmas all year long doesn’t mean that we keep our Christmas trees up longer—it means that we embrace the incarnational mission that Jesus has given all of his followers.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Something You Won't Often See

Me in a robe.

The Falam Baptist Church, a Frederick church of Christians from Burma, held an ordination service in our church last Saturday for their new pastor, San No Thuan (to my left in the picture.)

I agreed to help them set things up and run our soundboard.

Then they asked me to participate in the laying on of hands.

Which means I would have to wear a suit. On a Saturday. If it's Saturday and I'm wearing a suit, there's usually a body or a bride involved. This was serious.

Then they told me they wanted me to wear a robe.

I have to wear a suit and a robe?

I don't wear a robe in worship. Most Baptists don't.

Unless, apparently, you're from Burma.

I'll wear it occasionally when performing a wedding, but try to get out of it whenever I can. I wasn't even sure where my robe was.

It was a nice service, most of which I couldn't understand. But I was presented with a nice, handmade traditional Burmese book bag:

Yeah, I know it looks like a purse or a man-bag.  Trust me, it's a book bag.  It's their version of a briefcase.  And they are hand-made--they even make the material themselves on looms.  They do a lot themselves.  Afterward there was a big meal featuring beef.  Beef from a cow they owned, they slaughtered, they butchered, and they cooked.  Right here in the U.S.A.  What's more American than that?

Most Burmese are Buddhists; only 4% of Burmese people are Christian. These people are serious about their faith, and it did my heart good to join them in this special occasion.

Even if I had to wear a suit and a robe.

Thanksgiving in the Season of Christmas

I met with a friend who is also in ministry and learned that we share a love for the Christmas season.  For those of you that don’t know our routine, each year our family puts up two Christmas trees—an artificial tree with white lights and crystal ornaments that is upstairs in the living room, and a live tree with colored lights and multi-colored ornaments downstairs in the den.  The live tree goes up as soon after Thanksgiving as our favorite tree vendor starts selling them—we are usually one of the first ones on the lot—and by the time we take it down on New Years it is a dry stick of kindling, no matter how much we water it.  The artificial tree goes up around Halloween, and stays up at least until Valentines Day, and sometimes longer.
My friend follows a similar yet different schedule.  His tree goes up as soon as the World Series is over.  Then he and his wife put up a few more around the house, and by Thanksgiving they put six small trees outside, and one on the deck.  After New Year’s Day the trees are put away, except for one four-foot tree which replaces the main tree in the living room by the fireplace.  The decorations for that get changed from month to month, cumulating in April after baseball season starts, when it is decorated with Orioles stuff.
He says that in his house there are two seasons: Christmas season and baseball season.
I’ll come back to him.
I was in a grocery store in late October and there was a section of shelves dedicated to holiday decorations, and I was struck by the fact that there were Halloween decorations, and next to them were Christmas decorations.  I would have thought that maybe there would have been Thanksgiving decorations in between, but no—it was Halloween, then Christmas.
Used to be that Thanksgiving was seen as its own holiday, but then it was like Thanksgiving just became the official kickoff to the Christmas season.  Eat some turkey, and get ready for Black Friday.  Now the Christmas season gets kicked off right after Halloween—or maybe right after the World Series—and then we just blow right through Thanksgiving.  Pam and I were at the mall last weekend, and Santa was already bouncing kids on his knee.  Oh, and we were at the mall to do some Christmas shopping.  The official launch of Water For Christmas was more than a week ago.  The Creative Arts Team has already been working on Christmas decorations for the church, and their work begins in earnest this week, as next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.
Thanksgiving has become just a momentary blip in the Christmas season.
This is more an observation about our society than one about the church, because Thanksgiving has never really been a religious holiday; it has never been a part of the Christian calendar.  (This season before Advent is called Kingdomtide and actually begins at the end of the Pentecost season in late May.)  The origins of Thanksgiving are as a harvest festival, and was observed at various times until President Lincoln declared it a national holiday and unified its observance.  So it’s not an official church or Christian holiday.
But still.
Back to my friend.  We get together regularly to talk about our spiritual lives and challenge and encourage one another in our walk with Christ.  His focus lately is in wanting to be more thankful about everything, and so beginning fifty days before Thanksgiving he has made a concerted effort to be aware of things in his life for which he needs to be thankful.  In the evening he reflects  on his day and writes in a journal about the things he is thankful for in that day.
So, while on the outside it may appear that he goes straight from baseball season to the Christmas season, in reality he is consciously working to develop a real spirit of thanksgiving in his soul. 
And that is more than just a blip in the Christmas season.
Rather than seeing Thanksgiving as a kickoff to Christmas or just a momentary interruption in the preparation for Christmas, maybe we ought to view the Christmas season as an opportunity to develop a spirit of thanksgiving in our souls.  To reflect on the people, the events, and the circumstances that are in our lives for which we can be thankful.  To learn to be content with who we are, with who others are, with where we are in life, and with what we have.  To be less materialistic and more aware that, unlike a lot of people in our world, we don’t have to worry about literally surviving another week or even another day.  And that we can do something for those who do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Real Reason the Redskins Won

Redskin's $100 million defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth's mother, Linda, called Redskins coach Jim Zorn last week to give him a pep talk before the Redskins faced the Broncos.  She told him to "tell your buddies, if you go out there and just have fun, don't worry about winning or losing, just go out have fun, it'll be okay," Zorn said.  So did that do the trick?

Please.  Don't be silly.  Here's the real reason the Redskins won:

 That's Angela and her friends getting their picture taken with Haynesworth Friday night before Sunday's game.  Note how Angela is snuggling up close with Albert, actually touching him.  See, the Eubanks touch is like an anointing, and it is so powerful that he carried it back and "infected" the entire locker room.

Result: Redskins 27, Broncos 17.

Now you know.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Water Wow

Last year it took Water For Christmas about 3 1/2 weeks to raise $10,000.

This year we did it in a day.


First Gift raised over $10k last week.  That's two wells on the way to three.

That's clean water for over 500 people for 20 years.

Way to go people.  And keep it up.  Spread the word.

Friday, November 13, 2009

First Gift

Pam does Christmas shopping all year long.  It can be April, and she'll see something that she thinks someone in our family would like, and buys it for Christmas.  She's really organized.

I, on the other hand, am not.  I think about Christmas presents round 

So today, my donation to Water For Christmas really is the first gift I'm buying for Christmas.

$10 doesn't get much of a gift these days.  Maybe a stocking stuffer.  OK, a pretty nice stocking stuffer, but a stocking stuffer nonetheless.

Here's what $10 will do this Christmas:

This little boy is drinking clean water from a Charity:Water well in a small Liberian village.

This isn't one of Charity:Water's publicity pictures.  Jody Landers took this picture herself when she was in Liberia a week ago.

So it's not just a Charity:Water well.  It's a Water For Christmas well.  It's what we were able to do last year.  And what we're going to do again this year.

It starts today.

$10.  A stocking stuffer.  And clean water for one person for the next ten years.

If you want to see more pictures from Jody's trip, click on her blog link to the left.  If you need more info on First Gift before donating, take a look at this.  And if you're ready to give, click here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tomorrow is the Day

The Unwelcomed Word

One thing you can’t help but notice as you read through the prophets of the Old Testament is how unwelcomed their messages were. What the prophets—the genuine ones, the one’s whose oracles and/or writings made it into the scriptures—had to say was unpopular, and the kings in particular but often the people also didn’t like what they heard. More than once there was an effort to silence an unpopular prophet. Amos was told to get out of town and take his prophecies somewhere else (Amos 7:10-13). King Jehoiakim took his penknife and, as a scroll from Jeremiah was read to him, sliced off sections as they were read and threw them into the fireplace (Jeremiah 36). No wonder Jeremiah whined so much when God called him to be a prophet. It didn’t make you a very popular person.

I mention this because it seems that every time I hear someone talk about God telling them to do something—admittedly (and thankfully) that’s not often—it seems quite often to be something that they would want to do anyway. Something that might benefit them. Something that would result in them saying that God blessed them.
I don’t very often hear someone saying that they felt God leading them to do something costly. To do something that would require, not just a little bit of sacrifice, but a lot of sacrifice. To do something that would result in their crying out like Isaiah, “Woe is me!”

Of course I would be a little worried if someone came to me and actually used the words, “Woe is me!” But you get my point.

Why is it that when God speaks to people, it seems more often than not to be a welcome word? What happened to the prophetic pattern of the unwelcome word?
Yes, I know that the Old Testament is the Old Testament, that we are a New Testament people, living in the age of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So why would I want hearken back to an age gone by, an age that was ended by the coming of the Messiah who proclaimed Good News? Am I just in a bad mood or something? 

It’s just that the conditions that the prophets spoke out against still exist in our world. They don’t just exist, they are pervasive, and God is as offended by them now as he was back then. He hasn’t changed his mind. The prophets held those in power accountable for doing justice, and when they instead perpetrated injustice they heard about it, whether they liked it or not. And what is injustice? Try this definition from Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission: “Injustice occurs whenever power is misused to take from others what God has given them, namely, their life, dignity, liberty, or the fruits of their labor.”

And God needs people who are willing to do some dangerous things: speak truth to power, stand up against those who profit from injustice, and stand up for those who are victimized by it.

We understand that those in power, like King Jehoiakim, won’t welcome the word, but we also understand that Jeremiah didn’t relish having to tell it to him either. No one would. It’s dangerous to speak to the powers that way.

Which means that we have a choice. As Haugen points out, we can be safe, or we can be brave, but we can’t be both.

We welcome a word from God that promises us safety, security, and an avoidance of suffering. A word from God that would send us into dangerous places where there is real suffering isn’t necessarily a welcomed word. But it’s a necessary word. Following the will of God in a fallen world will generate some pain and suffering on our part, and who welcomes that? So we must be brave, and follow the unwelcomed call.

We have to remember that it was to victims of injustice that Jesus proclaimed that he had good news. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19) 

Now, we get to be bearers of that good news. And as bearers of good news, we may have to go some places that will make us uncomfortable; we may have to do some things that will make us uncomfortable; we may have to confront some people, which will make us feel uncomfortable. It may even be dangerous. But when we go, those to whom we minister will see our actions as a welcomed word. And that is truly good news for us as well.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Never Thoroughly Intended It

"Lord, teach us to pray,” one of Jesus’ disciples said to him one day.  I’ve always found a measure of comfort in that.  If one of Jesus’ disciples, who was with him constantly—watching, observing, listening, asking questions—didn’t know how to pray, my incompetence at it didn’t seem so alarming.  It still bothered me, but at least it meant that I was normal.
Likewise, when I read Thomas Merton in Contemplative Prayer: “One cannot begin to face the real difficulties of the life of prayer and meditation unless one is first perfectly content to be a beginner and really experience himself as one who knows little or nothing and has a desperate need to learn the bare rudiments…We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners.”  That was oddly comforting as well.  It is a little disturbing, I’ll admit, to think that I’ll never get “good” at prayer, whatever that means, but at least I know that my struggles, my fumbling around, my lack of competence, is normal.  If Merton wasn’t just jerking us around, if he himself really felt like a beginner at prayer throughout his life, then I shouldn’t feel so bad.
Except I do.  Seriously, who likes to do anything in which they never move beyond the level of beginner?  I hear guys who play golf regularly who, by their own description of their play, are pretty bad golfers, and I wonder why they go through the time and expense of playing if they aren’t getting any good at it.  Maybe it’s the snazzy clothes they get to wear.
If I started playing guitar and after 15 years of practice never moved beyond the level of beginner I would just quit playing.
And, you know, maybe start building guitars.
So I have found myself both embracing the concept of always being a beginner at prayer while fighting against it, wanting it not to be so, working to prove that it isn’t, even though I sense that it is.  And that’s pretty frustrating.
And when I get frustrated with it, I fall back into the comfort of it.
I recently read a statement from William Law from his book, A Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life, published in 1728.  I’ve not read the book, but it is the book which John Wesley, Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, and William Wilberforce all credited with causing a major turning point in their lives.  As it’s going on three-hundred years old, you would expect some of the language to be archaic.  Remember that words like “pious” and “primitive” didn’t have the negative connotations back then that they have acquired in modern vernacular; so substitute “devout” or “spiritual” for “pious” and “early” for “primitive” and you’ll be in business.
"If you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but because you never thoroughly intended it."
Now that’s just mean.  It’s not comforting at all.  And it hit me between the eyes when I read it, because it’s true.
“Never thoroughly intended it.”  Any prayerlessness on my part cannot be blamed on ignorance or inability, though I may be ignorant as well as incompetent at prayer.  Prayer is a matter of intention and desire; and likewise prayerlessness is a matter of intention and prayer.  None of us can blame busyness either; we find time for what is important to us.  If we don’t have time for prayer, it’s because prayer just isn’t that important.  We never thoroughly intended it.
I’m still working my way through this.  I don’t like it, find no comfort in it, and wish it weren’t true.
But I’m afraid that it is.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Water For Christmas Birthday

On November 3, 2008, Jody Landers officially launched Water for Christmas.  What an amazing one-year journey it has been.

$59,000 was raised in that short time between 11/3 and Christmas.

And it was all done by regular people.  There wasn't a professional fund-raiser leading the charge.  Just a regular person who knew lots of other regular people.  And a passion to help people.  And a weariness with the materialism of Christmas.

Of course, it helps if you are a regular person with a blog read by, it seems, a zillion people everyday.

Not mine, of course, Jody's.

So: Happy Birthday, WFC.  And way to go, Jody, who, by the way, is on a plane right now heading to Liberia to see for herself the work that Water for Christmas and Charity:Water are doing there.

Now, heads up.  Water For Christmas enters it's second season, and we're going to kick it off with a bang.  Here's what's happening:

Last year, we did $10 Fridays.  Every Friday for six weeks, people were encouraged to give ten bucks to WFC.  A lot was raised through $10 Fridays.

This year, instead of six Fridays, we are looking at one day.  One really big day.

November 13th.  Everyone giving $10.  So spread the word.  Use whatever means you have: Facebook, MySpace, blog, Twitter, email, texts.  Even that old technology that is hanging on your wall in the kitchen.

Here's the graphic that we are using:

Right click, copy and paste it into your message.  (OK, that won't work so well with that thing that hangs on the wall in the kitchen, but you know what I mean.)

I need your help to get the word out, because, well, my blog reaches somewhat less than a zillion people.

But I'm working on it.