Dec 26, 2014

'Twas the Week After Christmas

I have a dear friend named Tom Butts who is a United Methodist minister. He is a friend of Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird—and he visits her every week. Tom has retired from FUMC, Monroeville, Alabama, but is a wonderful pastor and excellent writer. So for this day I would like to give him the blog to write to us.    

Now that the “Big Day” is over and we are trying to get back to normal, whatever that may be, perhaps we should try to figure out how to keep some of Christmas in our lives. People tend to feel “let down” after such an intense celebration. It takes intentional effort to keep the spirit of Christmas alive when it is over. So many things mitigate against it. Several years ago Howard Thurman wrote a free-verse poem about taking Christmas beyond December 25th.

When the song of the angel is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home. When the shepherds are back with their flocks;
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations, to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart . . .

Most of the baubles we got or gave are soon gone, forgotten or stored out of sight in the attic. What we actually keep from the season are the intangibles. There is the spirit of excited joy we experienced/shared with the children who were too young and innocent to worry about mundane things like paying off credit cards and balancing the budget. There remains the joy of seeing the older children come home from college or distant work places, and seeing how they have grown and changed (hopefully for the better). There is the lingering memory of having extended members of our family of origin get together to swap grandiose tales of how things were when they were growing up. For many years my family of origin got together at the old home place where we grew up during the depression. We would celebrate the fact that we were all still alive and of sound mind (relatively speaking). We would recite embellished and polished gems of oral tradition about the good old days which were so hard—and so good. But times change. Death and distance have left my family of origin, and perhaps yours, with only the memories we struggle to keep.

Christmas is not a happy time for everyone. There are people who, for unspoken reasons, are glad that Christmas is over. They are weary of pretending to be happy when deep down they are sad. They have felt trapped by the common expectations of the season and the expectations of others, and have feigned as best they could a “holiday spirit.” We all know someone for whom this was the first Christmas after some significant loss such as death, divorce or one of the many other ways you can lose someone or something. There are those whose historical losses, failures and feelings of brokenness float to the surface at Christmas time, and they find themselves reliving some of the worst experiences of their past. And, then there are also some whose memories of “Christmases past” are just not happy. Be gentle and careful when you relate to people who morph into modern-day Scrooges. There are more of them than you think, and the reasons for their seasonal brittleness may be more complex than you can imagine.

This week between Christmas and the beginning of a new year is a good time to remember resolutions and promises made to ourselves, God, and other people. Did you keep the promises, or will you need to try again? Let me tell you a story of someone who kept his promise.

It was the day after Christmas at a church in San Francisco. As the pastor of the church was looking at the Nativity scene in the narthex and getting ready to store it until the next year, he noticed that the baby Jesus figure was missing from the manger. He went outside and saw a little boy pulling a red wagon down the street. The baby Jesus figure was in the red wagon. He walked up to the child and asked, “Son, where did you get that baby Jesus?”

The little boy said, “I got him from the church.”

“Why did you take him?” the pastor asked.

The little boy replied, “Well about a week before Christmas I prayed and told Jesus that if he would bring me a red wagon for Christmas, I would give him a ride!”

May we all be so faithful to our promises—each in our own way. 

-Tom Butts

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Dec 19, 2014

The Thrill of an Unconventional Christmas

As some may know, the Del Webb Corporation has built a number of senior retirement communities. Each one of these cities is impeccably designed and is almost a portrait of perfection. I visited Sun City West for the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce about twenty-five years ago and found the Sun City to be disconcertingly flawless. There was no trash on the grounds and everything was built to certain very precise specifications. Against the backdrop of the perfection of the Sun City concept was a story that I think captures our Advent theme of waiting and watching with joy and expectation.

Martin was our assigned bus driver for our trip. Martin drives groups around for the Arizona Limousine service—he had a very nice uniform. We were on our way to the airport when Martin told us a great story. Martin said it was his most exciting trip ever.

It seems that the prior summer there were terrible forest fires in the mountains east of Phoenix. The US Forest Service needed plenty of firefighters delivered in the wilderness. So, as odd as it sounds, Martin delivered plenty firefighters in his twenty-five passenger limo-bus. They were taken over logging roads with fires burning all around them. Martin said it was the most interesting driving he had ever done.

When Martin dropped off the firefighters the head firefighter said: “pick us up here at 6:00.” With no roads, no road signs, and the few distinct landmarks being burned all the while, Martin said he wondered how he would find his fares in the firefight. He concluded by saying, “In the midst of the fire I forgot to look how I got to the fire. I couldn't even remember by which tree I let them off.”

Within the Arizona wilderness Martin had experienced something that got his blood pumping. My Advent prayer for us is that we too might come to appreciate at this Advent season the wilderness.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Perhaps this Advent instead of trying to embrace the perfection beyond our understanding and ability that we may look to the wilderness for a better symbol of the life we have before us. Anyway that is God’s real story and I am sticking to it.

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Dec 12, 2014

The Best Time of the Year

A friend, a Nebraska pastor named Dan Flanagan, wrote a few years ago:

I was invited to speak at the annual Christmas dinner for the Tilden/Meadow Grove Lions Club. When I finished speaking, Clyde Fields, the president, asked people to share their fondest Christmas memories. Most of the memories involved people, not gifts. A relative, or a friend, had touched the lives of almost everyone in the room. These people were the special gifts of Christmas.

Rev. Flanagan’s insight hits things right on the head not only Christmas but much of life: it is people that make things important.

Consequently the next time you trudge unwilling to some Christmas party or another remember that in that party are those who not only make life interesting, but make life worth the living.

Please have a blessed Advent and Christmas.

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Dec 5, 2014

Why Didn't You Tell Me You Were Somebody?

Perhaps you heard the story about Maestro Pierre Monteux, one time conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, who arrived at the check-in desk of a hotel lobby late one night. Monteux was not an imposing or distinguishing presence in any way. The woman at the desk said, “I’m sorry, sir. Our hotel is full tonight.”

Her manager, however, recognized Monteux and called her over. “Don’t you know who that is?” she whispered. “That is Maestro Pierre Monteux, distinguished conductor of the symphony.” Whereupon the young woman returned to the desk and said, “I’m sorry, sir. Of course we have a room for you. Why didn’t you tell me you were somebody?”

Pierre Monteux looked at the woman for a moment, and then said, “Madam, everybody is somebody!” 

As we take the time and care to invite those who have no church home to share ours this Advent and Christmas, we might all do well to remember that we worship a savior who could not get checked in at his local hotel either.

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Nov 28, 2014

Thanksgiving and our Rituals

From time to time, people ask me why we should go to church. I would like to cite a specific example of how ritual functions—and worship is part of the Christian ritual.

A timely example of ritual is our secular celebration of Thanksgiving, which by the way, we model on the Hebrew notion of giving thanks to God. I suggest secular simply because Thanksgiving Day has been set aside for national thanksgiving to God by our presidents from at least as far back as Abraham Lincoln. In point of fact, for Christians every Sabbath Day is a day of thanksgiving. Thus, in a way, Christians should be experts at giving thanks to God.

Many families have their own thanksgiving rituals. I still remember the thanksgivings we spent at my grandmother’s house when growing up. We would all gather at the farm, eat a wonderful meal; dismiss the children to play outside. After the children left, the adults would push their plates back and listen to my grandfather spin tall tales about his life. Yet, his stories so entertained, that we youngsters would sneak back in and listen to his fantastic “whoppers!” Each Thanksgiving Day was exactly the same. Thanksgiving Days, as I remember them, are imprinted deeply on my soul. They were among my best childhood memories.

This is how ritual served us and my guess is that it functions this way for many families. We attend worship as either a nuclear family or part of the family of God because the ritual of worship gives our lives meaning and joy. Our worship ritual also gives us a formal opportunity to thank God for the gift we call life!

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Nov 21, 2014

A Dormant Mountain

Scores of people lost their lives. The world’s mightiest army was forced to abandon a strategic base. Property damage approached a billion dollars. All because the sleeping giant, Mount Pinatube in the Philippines, roared back to life after 600 years of quiet slumber.

When asked to account for the incredible destruction caused by this volcano, a research scientist from the Philippine department of volcanology observed, “When a volcano is silent for many years, our people forget that it’s a volcano and begin to treat it like a mountain.”

Like Mount Pinatube, our sinful nature always has the potential to erupt, bringing great harm both to ourselves and to others. As Paul wrote: “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The biggest mistake we can make is to ignore the volcano and move back onto what seems like a dormant “mountain.”

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Nov 14, 2014

Faith Means: Be Prepared

Too often in life an emergency arises and those caught in it are unprepared. The Boy Scout motto of “be prepared” is not a bad motto for most of us. 

The mighty Niagara River plummets some 180 feet at the American and Horseshoe Falls. Before the falls, there are violent, turbulent rapids. Farther upstream, however, where the river’s current flows more gently, boats are able to navigate. Just before the Welland River empties into the Niagara, a pedestrian walkway spans the river. Posted on this bridge’s pylons is a warning sign for all boaters: DO YOU HAVE AN ANCHOR? 


Faith, like the capacity to anchor a boat, is something we need to develop and use before we face a cataclysm.

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Nov 7, 2014

Why People Give

In September 2007 my friend Tom Butts who is the pastor emeritus at FUMC, Monroeville AL wrote an article that answers the question “why are some people generous?” Our Stewardship Education Series this year is titled “Rethink: Generosity.” Tom Butts offers us some good things to ponder.

This is the time of year when churches are in the process of planning their projected budget for the coming year. This essential procedure lacks exactitude, but when done correctly and published to the membership everyone gets a birds-eye view of the scope of the mission of the church.

The next step taken by most churches is to conduct a campaign for pledges to that budget. Many ministers and church leaders do not look forward to this annual task. We are reluctant to ask people to give, even to so worthy a project as the church. For the most part I have always found this exercise to be potentially spiritually enriching. I believe most people want to give to causes which represent the betterment of society in general and individuals in particular.

There are at least 3 essential ingredients to a stewardship campaign with integrity. The first is a clear understanding of the sacred nature of the cause for which money is being raised. This is God’s money. It is to be used only for promoting the Gospel and helping people. These are two things to which Jesus called his followers when he was here in the flesh. “Go ye unto all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). After a laundry list of ways we are called to minister to the poor and oppressed, Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren (and sisters) you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). Having established the holy nature of the effort we go to step two.

People tend to give generously when they know their leaders are giving generously. I recall a phrase from a stewardship campaign many years ago which I find to be true: “Financial influence runs downhill.” No minister or church leader should ask others to do something they are not doing. One of my friends was asked by a local church to direct the annual stewardship campaign. Early on he was told that the pastor of the church had never pledged, and had no record of giving. He went to the pastor and asked if this was true. After some stuttering and fancy footwork the pastor admitted this to be true, but said he gave to other undocumented causes. My friend said to him: “You will either make a pledge worthy of your means right now or I will pack my bags and go home. I will not ask people to do something their pastor is not doing.” [As an aside if you want to know what my family gives to the church, please ask and I will be happy to visit with you about it].

The third important element: “Do not be afraid to ask people to give.” When the cause is beyond our own interest—when it is for the highest purpose, be bold.

Robert Macauley, founder of AmeriCares Foundation, a humanitarian group that provides relief efforts at home and around the world, recalled an experience he and Mother Teresa had on an airplane flying to Mexico. As box dinners were being passed out, Mother Teresa asked how much the airline would donate to her charity if she returned her dinner. When she found out, she soon had everyone, including the crew, returning their dinners.

But it didn’t stop there. When the plane arrived at its destination, Mother Teresa asked the crew if she could have the dinners to donate to the poor. And, when the airline provided the dinners, she asked to borrow one of their maintenance trucks to deliver them.

These are reasons people give:

1. People realize that everything belongs to God.
2. The people who are our leaders are generous—and we follow their good example.
3. We ask people to give because it is part of our faith and we do good work!

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