That Time We All Got Knives in Our Stockings

We are a serious stocking stuffer family. 

Much of what we find in our stockings is random (e.g.  a name tag from the summer I worked at the Pizza Hut in Nags Head, make-your-own lip gloss kit, Billy Graham refrigerator magnet) but fun practical items can be found in there too.  One year we all got knives.

Nothing about knives says “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus” but people need knives and these had colorful handles and sharp blades.   The young people in the family were trying to equip their own kitchens and the older people in the family had misplaced all their knives.

Why do I share this?  Because the Advent season – those days before we celebrate the birth of Jesus – is about preparing to receive not what we want but what we need.  Some people strongly believe that Christmas is about getting what we want.  But I believe that Christmas is more about becoming aware of what we need, and what we need is certainly more enduring than knives.

Every day, we are confronted by so much pain and anger and frustration – at least if we are paying attention.  (Read the comment on my blog post yesterday about “points of disaster.”)  There are desperately broken people everywhere and not just in Mexico Beach, FL, Paradise, CA, and Anchorage, AK.  They are also in places that never make the news.  Despair is on the rise.  Peace on earth is hard to find.

And so we give gifts that some people want and some people don’t want and some people need and some people don’t need.  Whether or not you believe that knives make excellent stocking stuffers, what we all need this Christmas is what the Messiah was expected to bring to the long-suffering Israelites and to us all:

  • Forgiveness
  • Grace
  • Peace
  • Abundant Life
  • Spiritual Gifts We Cannot Begin to Imagine

These things are harder to receive than most other gifts.  Prosperity Gospel Preachers might tell us that tangible wealth is one of the gifts God promises to the faithful, but Jesus is not Santa.  Spiritual maturity has nothing to do with money – unless we are talking about giving it away.

What do we deeply need this Christmas?  What will change our lives in terms of our sense of spiritual peace? It’s something to think about as we countdown to December 25th.

A Kinder, Gentler Advent?

Just to be clear, Jesus did not receive the death penalty for chucking little children under his chin.  Nor was he executed for being a sweet-smelling baby lying in a manger.  He was crucified for sedition and hated for breaking boundaries and disrupting norms.  And for being God’s Word in human skin.

The news that President George H.W. Bush died late Friday night was not a surprise but it was a jolt – a reminder of gentler days when Presidents wrote thank you notes and showed authentic devotion to their family and to other people’s families.  We, the American people, found comfort in having a President who so clearly treasured his spouse and expressed gratitude for the grace and privilege of his life.  I personally appreciated his words about being a thousand points of light and being a kinder, gentler nation.

Yes, we can be points of light especially in these Advent days when The Light is coming.  Yes, we can be kinder and gentler (recognizing that even President Bush was not always that way.)

Our nation is craving Light these days.  We have become meaner and coarser and it’s ugly.  The Advent of Jesus, according to the scriptures is not exactly gentle:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Luke 21:25-26

Ugh.  And all we wanted were holly wreaths and sugar plums.

It’s radical to be kind when someone is throwing tear gas canisters at you.  It’s unnaturally holy to be gentle when a nation once aspiring to be a shining city on a hill (a term that came from the Bible before John Winthrop and then John F. Kennedy and then Ronald Reagan quoted it) now turns away refugees fleeing for their lives.

How do we balance kinder/gentler with responsible/firmer?  We look to Jesus.  Jesus turned over tables in the temple for the sake of justice towards the poor – not because he was cranky about getting bad reviews.  He was arrested for the sake of being as God has called us to be.

I pray for a kinder, gentler nation that feeds the hungry, heals the sick, houses the homeless, and welcomes the stranger.  This is not radical stuff.  Except that Jesus was killed for doing it because it challenged the empire.

Is it possible to challenge the empire while being kind and gentle?  (Yes.  But we will suffer for it and it might just kill us.)

Image of President and Mrs. Bush and Millie, Christmas 1987.

This is Why (the Poor) Can’t Have Nice Things

I remember talking with a homeless man in Chicago a few years ago on Michigan Avenue.  He was wearing the clothes you might expect to see on a poor person: dirty jeans, holey sweater, knit cap.  But he was wearing clean, unscuffed New Balance sneakers.

My first thought was that his shoes didn’t look like the shoes of a desperate person.  When he saw me staring at the shoes, he said, “Somebody gave these to me yesterday” and I wondered aloud if wearing new shoes makes him less likely to get donations from people.

Yeah, sometimes I sell things people give me.  I need good shoes, but if I’m wearing good shoes, people don’t believe I’m really homeless.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez experienced a version of this herself standing in The United States Capitol earlier this month:

Eddie Scarry, formerly a blogger for the gossip site FishbowlDC and currently a writer for the conservative Washington Examiner, posted a picture of Ocasio-Cortez, taken from behind, seemingly without her knowledge, as she walked through a hallway wearing a tailored black jacket and carrying a coat. He accompanied it with a note that doubled as a caption: “Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now. I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”  Source.

If she has struggled financially as a young adult living in the Bronx and working as a bartender, how could she possibly afford such nice clothes . . . unless she is lying to the American people?

Our culture condemns the poor.  If the poor look indigent, they are blamed for being lazy/addicted.  If the poor look presentable and/or are wearing appropriate clothing, they are accused of being con artists.  They can’t win.

A homeless person on the side of the road wearing a good parka and boots makes us wonder, “If they can’t afford an apartment, how can they afford clothes from LL Bean?”  Easy – thank God.  Maybe a Good Samaritan outfitted them because it’s really cold.  Maybe they picked up the outer wear at a church clothing closet.  Maybe they used to have an apartment with a closet full of nice things but now they live in a car because they lost their job and then their home.  It makes sense to keep the warm jacket and boots from your former closet if you are going to spend hours on the streets.

Like all things, serving the poor involves authentic relationships.  If there are homeless people regularly seen in our neighborhoods or small towns, why not strike up a relationship with them?  Only then will we find out that a church was handing out new boots one Saturday or a retailer gave out last season’s jackets.  Only then will we get to know what our poor neighbors need next:  a meal? a haircut? a bus pass?

It’s hard enough to struggle financially in this country.  It’s already shameful to have debt and hardship in a land of plenty.  But we can offer dignity by befriending people who struggle financially whether they live on the streets or in their cars or in a shelter or in a home on the brink of foreclosure.

Who is the poorest person you know by name?  It’s a serious question:  who is it?  What’s that person’s name?

The beginning of dignity is knowing someone by name and then being willing to know their story.

Image source.

Why I Don’t Want to Quit Facebook (Yet)

I could quit and probably should because the company is seriously ticking me off.  But I’m still on because:

  • I use FB for work.
  • I link it to this blog.
  • I like family photos even when they are also on Instagram.
  • Birthdays.
  • My feed now has minimal political commentary.  Thanks be to God.

I might take down my account nevertheless.  Have you made this decision or are you considering it?

Church World: Top Ten Things Not to Do

Every institution seems to be in transition these days and transition is hard.  There are no recipes, no how-to videos, no saviors.*  At the risk of offending well-meaning Church People, here are The Top Ten Things that will not help your congregation grow:

  1. An electronic church sign.  They’re expensive and they scream “Please Notice Us.”  And not in a good way.  Social media is free.  Use it.
  2. Screens in the sanctuary.  If screens will help people participate better – great.  But if we install screens “because the young people like them” we are missing the point.
  3. Drums/Tambourines/Guitars in Worship – again – if done for the sake of “attracting the young people.”  It’s not about the instruments.  It’s about the relationships.
  4. Powdered creamer for coffee time.  If you add cream to your coffee, you know why.  Make an effort.  Offer half and half.  And almond milk.  And fresh lemon for tea drinkers.
  5. Yellow Pages Advertisements.  For the love . . .
  6. Manuals of Operations Longer than Ten Pages.  It’s easier to come up with no-coffee-in-the-sanctuary policy than it is to talk about the spiritual maturity of the congregation.  Don’t distract yourselves with regulations.
  7. Visitor Parking Spaces.  No.  Most visitors do not want to stand up and identify themselves in worship either.
  8. Personalized Fine China.  If you already have this in your church kitchen, enjoy.  But if you are thinking it would be cool to order fine china with the name of the church imprinted on them, just don’t.  I know one church that voted to close rather than merge with another congregation “because of the china.”
  9. Historical Rooms.  Some congregations have multiple spaces dedicated to the rich past of their church.  But this implies that the past is at least as important as the future of a spiritual community.  I love history.  But there are hundreds of tourist sites in Europe that used to be churches.
  10. No Trespassing Signs.  Your insurance company wants these on the playground.  Cranky (get-off-my-church-lawn) Members want these in the parking lot.  Also not to be confused with Jesus:  “Play at Your Own Risk.”  “Church Members and Guests Only.”  “Thou Shalt Not Use Our Bathrooms.”  

What makes a Church thrive?  Authentic community.  Serious discipleship. Radical hospitality. Making a personal effort to love people who might not love you in return. Addressing what breaks God’s heart in the neighborhood in the name of Jesus.

This is obviously old news for the last Wednesday before Advent, but as congregations are making plans for 2019, it’s worth repeating.

*Okay, there actually is a capital S Savior.

Image from Amazon.  You can buy this on Amazon but I hope you won’t.

What’s the Cure for Despair?

Some people drink to forget.  Today we are drinking to remember.  From the communion liturgy at 11-16-18 worship in Marquand Chapel

This article continues to give me life.  Yes, life expectancy decreased in the United States in both 2016 and 2017.  And yes, “the broader basis of this decline” is despair.  And yes, opioid addiction is the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States – even higher than yearly deaths due to HIV, car crashes or gun deaths in their peak years – according to the Centers for Disease Control.  And addiction is a disease of despair.

Why am I hopeful?  Because it’s an excellent time to be the Church.

2019 and beyond could be the most Spirit-filled and Reign of God-esque years that God has ever bestowed upon us . . . IF we are truly the Church of Christ’s fearless disciples (and not a church hooked on institutional survival and civil religion.)  God has presented us with an array of local and global needs, so there are no excuses.

What will the Church offer if we are being faithful?

  • Community (“God With Us” is not just a pithy Advent promise.)
  • Healing (from broken souls, broken bodies, and broken promises.)
  • Radical Inclusion (even addicts and all other screw-ups, and of course every kind of skin color, nationality, orientation, ability, gender, and language.)
  • Authenticity (which is everything in a world when truth-telling is rare.)

What are we called to be and do this Advent season and beyond?  Remember that God was willing to come personally to show us how to be the Church.  Let’s pay attention out there.  Every. Day. God. Is. Revealing. New. People. To. Love.

Image source.

Decades

It was a good and hard Thanksgiving.  Good to be with family.  Hard to pack up two family members’ possessions into boxes and lists that will fit into an assisted living apartment.

The last thing my father ate before he died 28 years ago was a bite of yellow layer cake with chocolate icing.  I remember thinking “He really is going to die” because he had never left a piece of cake uneaten in his entire life.  I remember, as he became ornery due to the ravages of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that I jokingly said, “You’re going to be a cranky old man.”  And he said – without a twinkle in his eye – “I’m already a cranky old man.”  Actually he wasn’t old at all chronologically. But his twinkle-in-the-eye moments were over, at least on this side of heaven.

Life can make us cranky.  Sprouting baby teeth.  Enduring puberty.  Figuring out young adulthood.  Juggling work and family.  Dealing with midlife.  Worrying about debt as retirement is staring us in the face. Replacing knees and hips. Out-living loved ones. Moving into Senior Living space.

Years ago HH and I sat with a beloved parishioner in her high rise apartment while she waited for the moving van that would take her to a retirement facility in another state near her daughter.  Stacks of boxes towered around us as she mournfully said, “You live your life and it all comes down to this.  Boxes.”

After helping fill some of the boxes of life over the weekend, several things occur to me:

  • When we think back over the years and can’t pick our very favorite decade – because all of them were wonderful in their own ways in spite of inevitable failures and losses – we’ve experienced unspeakable privilege.
  • We all need less stuff.  I loved the term “Black Friday of the Soulhere and then I felt PTSD when I read this recently.  Survivors will thank us if we stop buying/hoarding/collecting/hanging onto stuff.
  • Experiences with people we love are excellent gifts.
  • It’s important to use what we have.  Take the plastic off the furniture.  Burn the candle shaped like the Statue of Liberty.  Eat the chocolate pumpkin.

Our decades are precious and if we are fortunate, we get several of them filled with more joy than sorrow.  And once we recognize that giving thanks is an essential life practice, the next step is to ensure that others also enjoy more joy than sorrow in their decades too.

This is the meaning of life.  (I especially like the way Jesus put it.)

Happy Monday.

Image source which also states that U.S. life expectancy dropped in both 2016 and 2017, partially due to despair.

(Trans) Gender Reveal

I got on an elevator in my apartment building Sunday with two men and a bouquet of blue balloons.  Baby blue, to be specific.

Me:  Is it somebody’s birthday or is somebody having a baby boy?

Guys in Elevator (obviously jubilant): We are having a baby boy.  We just found out and people are coming over to our reveal party.

I noticed that only one of the men was carrying balloons.  The other one was carrying bottles of champagne.

Me (out loud): Congratulations!  I hope you have a perfect baby!

Me (in my head): What if your baby’s not a boy after all?  You two are perhaps not what your parents expected but you are so happy. I hope your baby’s happy too.  You never know who your child will be.

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance which may or may not show up on your Hallmark calendar.  You can read more about it here.

We Christians believe in revelation.  And imagine – if we possibly can – what it might feel like to have it revealed to us, either slowly over time or like a jolt on a random Tuesday, that we are not what everyone has assumed we are based on our parts.  If you are reading this in a small town where LGBTQ+ people are unknown, please know that our LGBTQ+ siblings are indeed out there.  (But maybe not out there.)

For what it’s worth, most of the congregations I visit have trans members or visitors, or there are trans folks in the families of our parishioners.  Depending on how safe your family is, you might not even know that a distant cousin or nibling (the children of our siblings) is trans.  This is the case in my own family of origin.

Revelation is generally terrifyingAsk John of Patmos.    Nobody wants to hear about “the synagogue of Satan.”  Nobody wants to see death on a pale horse.

And even if the revelation we receive is dramatically less cataclysmic than the sun becoming as “black as sackcloth of hair” it’s existentially tumultuous when:

  • You realize you are not called to be a lawyer after all . . .
  • You realize your parents are imperfect human beings . . .
  • You realize that you don’t love ___ anymore . . .
  • You realize that do not have a Cisgender body.

Gender reveal parties are interesting as long as we – ourselves – realize that God is God and we are not.  The God who made eyelids and toes and human skin has also created a diverse array of human beings all created to enjoy and glorify God forever.

Remember that time Peter the apostle was having a revelation about “unclean things” in the book of Acts?

The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  Acts 10: 15

There are people some call “unclean” today: undocumented immigrants, the working poor, the homeless, our LGBTQ+ siblings.  But the Truth is still true:  ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  And yet the bodies of some of God’s precious children are killed for being who they are.  The Human Rights Campaign reports that these people were killed in hate crimes in 2018 because they were trans:

Today is a good day to remember them by name.  It’s also a good day to educate ourselves about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people.  Maybe it’s makes you uncomfortable.  Maybe this is very new and unfamiliar to you.

But there are children of God out there who need and deserve a spiritual community that loves them in the Image of God.  Because they were created in the Image of God.

As the body is clothed in cloth
And the muscles in the skin
And the bones in the muscles
And the heart in the chest,
So are we, body and soul,
Clothed in the goodness of God.

Julian of Norwich – source here

Thank you J, A, S, A, S, M, M, T, P, and G.  You are blessings in the life of the Church and in my life.

Is Being a Good Person Preventing Us from Being a Better Person?

The only thing needed for racism to continue is for good people to do nothing. Debby Irving in Waking Up White

I suspect that most of us consider ourselves to be Good People.  We make donations to charities and buy Girl Scout cookies.  We help neighbors here and there.  We certainly commit no heinous crimes or secretly belong to criminal organizations.  (Unless we do.)

Are there Good People who sell drugs or hit their children?  Sure?  To this day Hermann Göring’s daughter continues to proclaim that her father was a good man.  He was sentenced to death for being one of those responsible for the deaths of over 5,700,000 Jews.  Was he a good father while subsequently being a Nazi? Maybe?

In terms of regular people like you and me, being “good” is still relative. We can be sinners and we can be saints, and we can be better.  This is where being in a spiritual community is helpful.

In a healthy church, we are held accountable when we lie, cheat, hold grudges, and say racist/sexist/homophobic/not-to-be-confused-with-Jesus things.  In a healthy church, we are inspired by the message of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the awesomeness of the Creator to do better.  In a healthy church, we are also aspirational, but not necessarily in the I-want-to-go-to-medical-school kind of way.  We aspire to be the people we were created to be AND to see others through the eyes of Christ as the people they were created to be.

This can be so annoying because it’s much easier to cling to our biases and our resentments.  It’s even easier to stay stuck in ditches of shame.  But we were born to be better.  We have good moments.  We might even have perfect moments.  But we can do better.

And we must.  When I criticize my country, my church, my denomination, my city it’s not that I don’t love my country, church, denomination and city.  It’s just that we can do better.

Monday’s as good a day as any to get started.  Was there anything you learned over the weekend that inspires you to ponder these things?

  • Who am I moved to serve beyond myself and my family?
  • What’s the most important thing I will do today?
  • What deep pain do I need to get past before I can love people?
  • What have I learned from the people who’ve hurt me?
  • What anonymous thing could I do today that would make someone else’s life easier?

Sometimes – although I hide it well – I’m not a very good person.  I can do much better. But that’s why resurrection is such a wonderful and divine idea.

Today’s Pep Talk

Continue reading