Monthly Archives: December 2012

An iPad or Lots of Jesus for Christmas?

Over the last couple of years, I haven’t had much of a Christmas list. Of course that rendered the annual, “What do you want for Christmas?” conversation with family members a frustrating one. I’ve been told I’m difficult to shop for.

But this year was different. I experienced a conflict between my inner-child and my adult self. The inner-child Ralphiebegan to strangely resemble Ralphie from A Christmas Story. My internal Ralphie had his heart set on the impossible dream of Christmas gifts: an iPad. And believe me, the iPad ranked right up there with the “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time”.

No, an iPad wouldn’t shoot my eye out, but I’ve never received a Christmas gift that extravagant. That just doesn’t happen. At the same time, my adult, more sober self kept saying, “You have all you need already. And besides, just as you’ve preached and taught so many times before, Christmas is not about getting a bunch of stuff.” Yeah, I know, I know…

So all through Advent the Raphie side hoped on for the elusive iPad while the adult side looked for greater, more intangible, spiritual things. What  came next were memories of Christmas Days I had in the past. What lessons did I learn then?

What stands out most from Christmas Days in the past were not the presents I received but the relational gifts. I remember getting up first thing in the morning with my siblings before my parents were awake to wait for that magical stroke of 7 AM when it was okay to wake up Mom and Dad. I remember warm, festive family gatherings at my grandmother Owens’ small two-bedroom apartment packed with 15 people for Christmas morning brunch followed by Christmas  dinner just a two miles away at my grandmother and grandfather Henderson’s house.

When I became a Christian, those beautifully powerful Christmas Eve services complete with carol singing, candlelight, Holy Communion, and inspiring preaching of the Christmas story stand out in my mind. I have loved the anticipation of the Advent wreathe with its subtle message that Christ is coming. I am captivated by the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and born to a virgin within a manger stall.


nativitysceneSo this year I found Jesus in some powerful ways:

  • My church hosted a Blue Christmas worship service at the beginning of Advent. Far from an Elvis thing, it was a time for grieving people to come to terms with the holiday season. I love this service because we discover how the joy of Christmas is more than the trappings and festivities of Christmas. All of that gets lost on grieving people. Christ was born into poverty and pain and can be born anew in our grief, too.
  • During the second week of December, my church once again hosted 30 homeless men. Over the years of this ministry, I have looked more intently for the face of Jesus in our guests. This comes from something Jesus said about how the things we do for the least in our world, we actually do for him. Yes, I saw and encountered Jesus in some powerful ways. Strange as this may sound, I enjoyed doing the guys’ laundry. Blairlee came home every day with a few loads of the guys’ clothes. They were often every bit as smelly and grungy as you’d imagine. But somehow I found it to be an honor to wash these guys clothes, dry them, and fold them up. I got to do Jesus’ laundry, after all. One night I got to stitch up a coat that had gotten badly ripped, and as I sewed it, I spent time talking with its owner.
  • My family went through some rough times in December with illnesses and some emotional growing pains to work through. It unfolded into an experience of the healing grace of Jesus.
  • A week before Christmas, a clergy woman I had been guiding and coaching died. Her funeral was one of the most awesome send-offs I had ever been a part of. Far from the gloom and doom that characterizes most funerals, this one was packed with joy, promise, and worship. Jesus was there and his resurrection was front and center.
  • All of this made for some meaningful Christmas Eve services. Having experienced the reality of Jesus as Emmanuel (which means God with us), I had plenty of juice to preach the good news of the birth of Christ.

And what of the iPad? Well, that will have to wait, unfortunately. But all that I received from God of Jesus in this season of Advent and Christmas well overshadowed what I didn’t get from this world. That is well more than good enough.

(Of course, the ever hopeful Ralphie side reminds me that there are still nine days of Christmas left! I’m not all that optimistic, but who knows?)


Filed under Christmas and Holidays, Spiritual Growth and Practice

How I Sent an Atheist to Church

And in all fairness to my atheist friend, this could also be titled, “How an Atheist Influenced a Church to Action”, but since I’m the author… well, you know. Now for the story!

Over the last couple of years, through blogging and Facebook, I’ve been enjoying a friendship with an atheist who lives in California. It’s been one of the most unexpected kinds of friendships, one that’s had its fair share of hot debates, as you can imagine. But also we’ve been able to nurture and respect one another, too.

Let’s be honest. Believers and atheists can get along… except when it comes to religion. It stems from the fact that each looks at the belief system of the other with sheer incredulity. It’s like this. The believer asks, “How can you be so blind to not see all the evidence of God? Are you that hard-hearted?” And the atheist asks, “How can you be so blind to all the evidence that crushes your fairy tale myths? Are you that dim-witted?” And on it goes.

I don’t know what my atheist friend might have garnered from me over these last couple of years, but speaking for myself, I have learned so many valuable things from him. If you listen to atheists and agnostics, they often level heavy critiques of religion and religious organizations that quite frankly ought to be just as alarming to religious people. If there’s an inconsistency, hypocrisy, a theological disparity, insincerity, or a failure to live up to what we say, they’re going to spot it a mile off and make some noise about it.

In that way, atheists and agnostics provide a healthy mirror for me. It’s challenging. I don’t always like or agree with what they point out. But I’d be a fool, and an arrogant fool at that, not to listen without being defensive.

So, in my recent conversations with my atheist friend, we got to talking about the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings. He was deeply upset that Christians only appeared to be praying and encouraging people to pray instead of getting up to do something about this tragedy. That’s a fair critique. I have seen believers get way too stuck in piety while avoiding the call to step up and serve in Christ’s name. As the biblical prophet Micah reminds us:

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:7-8)

My friend and I went back and forth on this for a bit, as we always do, and that’s when things got interesting. It was the Saturday after the shootings.

My friend put a challenge to me. He told me that if I would motivate my congregation to do something for the Sandy Hook school community, more than just pray, he would do some kind of religious practice of my choice: read a religious book, say prayers, or go to church. I told him, you’re on.

I scrambled, but on that Sunday morning, we did indeed pray for the Newtown community. And then, at my friend’s strong encouragement, we distributed consolation and Christmas cards, encouraging my congregation to write a note of sympathy to someone from the Newtown community. All in all, we collected 108 cards and have since then shipped them off to Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was due in large part to the healthy challenge my atheist friend gave my church and me.

He was right. We needed to do more than just pray. We needed to embody the mercy, healing, and presence of God that we prayed for, allowing for God to work through us to become part of the answer to our own prayers. (It goes without saying that the theological import of that last phrase is mine, not his. My atheist friend would probably just say, “Get off your holy butts and do something!” Fair enough.)
Glide Memorial Church

Well, a bargain is a bargain, so I asked my friend to choose a church of his choice and visit there on a Sunday. Afterwards, I’m looking forward to a reflection from him on his experience. I have no idea what God will do with this in his life. That’s up to God and up to my friend. I’m trusting in God’s goodness and loving faithfulness to make the difference, but again, that’s between them.

I’d like to think that believers and atheists can actually help each other. I know that atheists can help believers be more “gospel”, more true to who and what we say we are and believe. Can believers help atheists to see the reality of God? I’d like to hope so. Jesus has some practical instruction on that:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Notice that it’s good deeds, not good words that bring praise to God. It’s an authentic life well-lived that shines, not religiosity. Perhaps that’s what will bring believers and atheists together into one peaceable kingdom.


Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Church Culture and Leadership

A Christmas Card from Muslims

‘Tis the season for sending and receiving Christmas and holiday cards from family and friends. I’m always grateful for those who remember my family and me with a card. But this year, I opened one of the most unusual and touching Christmas cards I have ever gotten. It’s from the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, MD. A few of my other clergy colleagues reported getting this same card.
Islamic Christmas CardHere’s the front of the card.
The inside of the card reads:

The Quran has only one chapter named after a woman; Chapter 19 is titled “Mary”, or as it is translated in Arabic– Maryam. The Quran tells us that the infant Jesus, (or Isa as it is translated in Arabic), spoke from Mary’s arms:

“…He said: Surely I am a servant of God; He has given me the Book and made me a prophet; And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and He has enjoined on me prayer and charity so long as I live; And dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me insolent, unblessed; And peace on me on the day I was born, and on the day I die, and on the day I am raised to life.” Quran 19:30-33

While Muslims don’t partake in Christmas celebrations, we believe in the awesome and miraculous birth of Jesus, in the miracles he performed by God’s Grace, and in the message of love and peace Jesus brought into the world.”

The Islamic Education Center

How unusual is that? I think it was a beautiful expression.

Undoubtedly, some cynics would spin this as some kind of devious underhanded ploy. But for what? To convert me? I hardly think one card will do that. To place Islam in a more positive light? What’s wrong with that? Islamic extremism has colored Islam so negatively in the eyes of many. Outreaches like this would only help reclaim Islam from the bad publicity of extremism. Are they trying to draw me into conversation? Well, what’s wrong with that? Perhaps if we had more open-ended conversations, there would be fewer misunderstandings and tensions between our two communities.

I’m taking this card for what I believe it is. It’s a neighborly, thoughtful way of reaching out and honoring another faith community’s most sacred times of the year. I got to learn some more about Islam and receive a wonderful blessing from an Islamic community.

So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to acknowledge and thank them. Potomac is not right around the corner from me, but if they invite me to some conversation and ecumenical dialogue, I would be very open to that. Perhaps if more of this kind of thing happens, the heavenly pronouncement of

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

at the birth of Jesus would become more of a reality. My Muslim neighbors rightly pointed out that Jesus came to bring the peace and love of God.

Shouldn’t Christ’s living body, his Church, be the preeminent, living example of the same?


Filed under Christmas and Holidays, Cultural Trends, Judaism and Other Religions

From a Skeptic: Bravo, President Obama

Okay, confession time.  At best I’ve been at best a skeptic of President Obama’s leadership and some of his agenda. (That does not necessarily indicate how I voted. I voted for candidates I was skeptical of because given the choice, that was best alternative.) But last night I saw a very different President Obama at Newtown High School. Apparently, he gave his speech writers the day off, writing most all of what he shared. The effect: it was deeply sincere. He spoke as a parent and as a man. The teleprompters were gone.  He wasn’t stumping or campaigning for anything. He was there in Newtown, Conn. as President of the United States consoling a grieving nation while promising to lead us all forward.
Obama NewtownIn the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, we needed a caliber of leader we rarely see in today’s American leadership– a true statesman. A statesman is one who rises above personal vantage and partisan politics to speak to the nation, on behalf of the whole nation. And in the great and widening political gulf of polarized two-party politics, that is indeed one rare bird to spot. Miring himself in partisan squabble, Obama has only occasionaly shown that kind of statesmanship in the past. But last night, he perfectly embodied it in a timely, powerful way.

For that he has my deepest respect.

I heard the President say several things:

  • He began addressing our grief and need for consolation in very personal, spiritual terms.
  • He praised the wonderful example of the people of Newtown, Conn., something I’ve rarely heard so far in all the reporting and commentary. The message: they are far more than victims.
  • As a society, we are judged by the way we value and care for our children.
  • We cannot go on the same. Something must change to prevent this kind violence from happening again.
  • The President will bring together law enforcement, mental health professionals, educators, and parents to find solutions. (Let’s pray something truly does come out of this. We can’t stand yet another fruitless commission.)
  • We must not be afraid or held back by politics on our way towards the solutions we need.
  • Then the President ended on another spiritual, highly existential note as a way of moving us forward.

I know that talking heads from both sides of the aisle are presently combing this speech for clues of the President’s political agenda. I’m sure he already has ideas of what he wants to do. But I saw hardly any of that on display last night. It was very much a gentle but strong rallying together of our great nation.

We’ll see how long the President can sustain last night’s rally, but for today, he gets an A+++ from me and from many others who haven’t always been on the President’s bandwagon. I’ll be praying for the kind of leadership it will take to unite our nation towards the solutions we need. He’s going to need it! But for now:

Bravo, Mr. President.


Filed under Cultural Trends, Politics

Guns Are Not the Problem– Broken Lives Are

Newton, ConnAs I write this, the horrors of yet another mass shooting are unfolding before our eyes, this time at Sandy Hook Elementary school near Newton, Conn. It happened again. Someone armed himself, entered a public place, and opened fire on innocent people. In a split second, lives were taken, and many more loved ones suddenly lost a child or another loved one in a horrific act of violence. 18 children woke up this morning to go to school. They never got home.

And when this happens, we’re shocked in disbelief. I am sickened at the thought of it. The horror overtakes us. We get angry and we demand an explanation. We need something or someone to blame– some deranged sicko. Society. God. And of course guns. It never fails that when a shooting like this happens, immediately the cry for greater gun control or even gun elimination goes up. I sympathize deeply with all of this.

But as always, I find myself concluding the same thing: guns are not the problem. You can control and regulate guns to the nth degree, and I guarantee you, this kind of thing will still happen, even as regularly.

Now, before you lampoon me as some kind of right-wing, card-carrying NRA nut job who worships the Second Amendment, calm down. I’m none of those things. I think the Second Amendment is a good thing. I support peoples’ right to lawfully possess fire arms, and I believe in reasonable gun control and regulation. At the same time, I do not own a gun, and I probably never will. That’s a personal choice.

But every time a shooting like this happens, and the gun control cries go out, I think of 9/11. On 9/11 nearly 3,000 people died, and not a single gun was used. What caused those deaths? Box cutters and airplanes. But actually box cutters and airplanes didn’t murder nearly 3000 people, either. People did.

Guns or anything else used as a weapon are not the problem. The people who would use them to commit an act of evil are the problem. We’re seeing an uptick in the kind of desperation, alienation, anger, and depression that lead to these kinds of awful killings. We see desperation, alienation, anger, and depression all around us, don’t we? We see it acted out in a number of ways to varying degrees of ugliness. I saw it at a gas station today. I even see it in good church people.

It’s the human heart that needs healing, and no increase in gun control laws or any other kind of law will cure that ill. Only God can, either through direct intervention or through you into the lives of those around you. That’s the cure.

We’re nearing the Christmas season and the yearly reminder that God has not left us on our own to our own violent ways. God was born to us as our Emmanuel, as Jesus Christ. God is surely among us, and Jesus promised to never leave us or forsake us. He promised us the way of peace and joy. God has not forsaken Newton, Conn. God is clearly there now in ways we can see and not see, and that gives me a great deal of solace.

How can we prevent things like this from happening again? The answer: by making sure we love the unlovable. When we know of lonely, difficult people, don’t leave them there. Love and care for them. Let them know they are important to you. Dry their tears. Let them vent their anger. Go out of your way to do intentionally nice things for them. Most of all, let them know they are not alone.

Then maybe, just maybe, we might prevent more of these violent acts of desperation from happening again. God only knows we cannot fathom any more of them.


Filed under Cultural Trends, Mental Health, Politics