Blog

White Christmas

So many of us may find ourselves listening to this song this year and find it filling us with longing because we cannot do everything the ways we always do. And that is okay to be honest about that emotion…

I’m dreaming of a White Christmas just like the ones I used to know, where the tree tops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow. I’m dreaming of a White Christmas with every Christmas card I write. May your days be merry and bright and may all your Christmases be white.

Originally written by Irving Berlin in 1940, this song did not truly become a hit until after Pearl Harbor during World War II. With its lyrics reminding all of our troops of home during long years away, how could it not become the popular classic it has remained all these decades later.

This year, this song offers a bit of a paradox. In many ways, we are all quite tired of being tied up at home. A lot of us feel as though we have been planted in our houses for years, even though it has merely been a matter of months. And yet, the heart of this classic Christmas carol still rings true: we still long for the warm heart of home. The comfort. The welcome. The love that it represents.

So many of us may find ourselves listening to this song this year and find it filling us with longing because we cannot do everything the ways we always do. And that is okay to be honest about that emotion. It is very real. And it does hurt.

Nevertheless, we cannot stay in that place for long. We may not be able to do things the same way, but Christmas is not cancelled. There is still work to do. Hold tight to that feeling of warmth, those memories you love – and then do all you can to build new memories through creativity and imagination. Use this strange year as an opportunity to see Christmas through new eyes, something many of us probably have not done since we were children.

Because our days can still be merry and bright, and with a little luck, our Christmas will still be covered in snow.

White Christmas

God Rest Ye

But here’s the clincher – we are meant to be a part of spreading that love…

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. Oh tidings of comfort and joy…

This classic English carol likely dates back to before the sixteenth century. However, the earliest known record we have of it comes from the eighteenth. In its minor key, the melody draws our minds to the days of yore and Christmases long past as it offers us promises of comfort and joy no matter the circumstances.

Unfortunately, for many of us in the throes of difficult situations, this may not be a message we may feel ready to hear. Though we know that God is present and Christ carries us through all things, in the midst of the reality of life’s messiness – the deep shadows of this world – sometimes the waves of despair can feel too overwhelming.

Yet, minor keys always help in those situations.

And when we are ready, the final lyrics of this hymn offer a power to them like no other: this holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface. There is nothing more powerful than God’s love. Not despair. Not tragedy. Not devastation. Not destitution. Not oppression. Not even death.

But here’s the clincher – we are meant to be a part of spreading that love. As the carol sings, with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace. We are the ones who care for the mourning, the troubled, the defeated, the lost, the lonely. Those who are help rebuilt after disaster strike. Who fight hunger and homelessness. And who never forget that it is ours to work to end oppression, too.

God’s tidings of comfort and joy are not only something we sing. They are something we do.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

It’s the Most Wonderful Time

What if, instead of focusing on all the traditions we are having to give up this year, we instead refocus our energies on how we can set hearts aglow in creative and different ways…

It’s the most wonderful time of the year with kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer – it’s the most wonderful time of the year!

In looking at the lyrics of this classic, as it talks about parties, friends visiting, loved ones being near, and people making out under the mistletoe, I realized something – this is perhaps the most ironic Christmas song of 2020. It highlights all the wonderful Christmas traditions that many of us are not engaging in due to the global pandemic. So let me start by begging someone to please bring on the parodies…

In addition to the irony, this song brings up an even more important point: this is not the most wonderful time of the year for a lot of people. For many of us, this is one of the most difficult times of the year. For everyone who is missing a loved one, experiencing a new divorce, or facing economic hardship (just to name a few of the difficult things happening to our neighbors), this time is not really that cheerful. We need to be mindful of what we say and do as we are celebrating.

And yet, there is one line in this song that does offer some hope: tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.

What if, instead of focusing on all the traditions we are having to give up this year, we instead refocus our energies on how we can set hearts aglow in creative and different ways. Perhaps we help teach our older neighbors or relatives to FaceTime or Zoom so they can see their families. Or spend extra time on our Christmas cards so that no one feels left out. Or take a few minutes every day to reach out to old friends we haven’t seen in a while to let them know we care. Or purchase biodegradable floating lanterns and give them to your friends who have lost loved ones to remember them on Christmas or New Year’s. Even better, we can get ahold of our local charitable organizations, find out what they need, and do what we can to help fill them.

There are still myriads of ways we can create our own tales of Christmas glory this year. We just have to work for it, just as everyone did in those old stories we love to sit around the bonfires and tell.

So, there are still twenty-six days until Christmas. Let’s get to work, because there is still much wonder we can all create!

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

The chant-like melody of this classic allows us to still our minds for a bit in the midst of this season’s busy-ness. My encouragement to you this day is to take a moment to pause and reflect on what it means that God would make God’s home among us…

O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and discord cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Though we often sing this song at the very beginning of our Advent celebrations in the modern church, this hymn was originally intended for the very final days before Christmas. The original Latin text had seven verses, one for each of the final seven days before Christmas Eve and was sung in monasteries as early as the eighth and ninth centuries.

Each of the verses named one of the key roles prophesied for the Christ-child. From “God with us” to “divine wisdom” – Jesus fulfilled a wide variety of promises to God’s people. We should never forget that he did not magically appear into a vacuum. He was born the Messiah of a specific people. His role as the “Desire of nations” was only the final purpose, and one that he did not fully take on until after his resurrection.

The chant-like melody of this classic allows us to still our minds for a bit in the midst of this season’s busy-ness. My encouragement to you this day is to take a moment to pause and reflect on what it means that God would make God’s home among us. More importantly: where might we still find Christ among us today?

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Thanksgiving 2020

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s so difficult to believe that we are finally to the holiday season. And yet it also feels as though it has been at least a decade since March with all we’ve been through in 2020.

As we officially kick off a month and a half of dozens of holidays, today is the day to take a moment to be thankful.

It is very true that this year has given us many things to grumble about – from masks to stay at home orders. For some, this year has taken homes, livelihoods and cities by hurricane, fire, or earthquake. And still for others of us, we have lost some of those closest to us.

Yes, there are many things we can be grumpy about. Be frustrated with. Be downright angry for.

And yet, think about the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. Think of the ways we have surrounded one another with care and comfort like never before (literally, since we’ve had to do it masked and at a distance). Think of the ways we have rallied to support our health care workers and other essential professions. Think of how people are getting creative and using tons of energy to keep our traditions alive, even if in new ways.

There is so much to celebrate about this year, if we just take time to look around and find it.

What is more – no matter what anyone may say – God has never left us. God’s love and presence has been with us throughout everything we have faced. God has been working ferment to see the world flipped upside down so that the Kingdom may continue to grow. And God has been opening our hearts in new ways so that we might start fighting for each other, instead of against.

So celebrate this Thanksgiving. Be safe, please. And give thanks for all the miracles that have happened this year. All the miracles that still lie ahead of us. Because God’s love will always make sure they keep on coming.

A Complex Circle

Like the beautiful changing of the seasons that cannot fully decide which way to go, life is a complex journey that sometimes walks us around in circles before moving us forward. And that is not a bad thing…

The seasons are definitely changing here in central Pennsylvania. Our weather can’t decide if it wants to be in late autumn with leaves on the ground or cover our rolling hills with blankets of snow. It’s honestly a whole lot of fun for someone who spent the last eighteen years south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The funny thing about the seasons wavering is that it honestly reminds me a lot of what the reality of grief is like.

There are times when we can do nothing but weep. And yet the next day we find ourselves laughing hysterically at some random joke.

There are times when it is nearly impossible to breathe because of the hole within us left by our loss. And still we find ourselves dancing a few days later with our friends because life is still worth living.

Whether you have ever lost someone close to you, or if you are simply feeling the pain of loss that this year has brought to so many of us because of its chaotic, downright crazy existence – I am here to tell you that it is okay to live in a place where not everything is practically perfect in every way.

It is perfectly fine to feel grief. And it is also perfectly acceptable to laugh while you are hurting. All of it is okay. All of it is normal. All of it is right.

Like the beautiful changing of the seasons that cannot fully decide which way to go, life is a complex journey that sometimes walks us around in circles before moving us forward. And that is not a bad thing.

Never forget that a true rendering of Psalm 23’s “leads me in paths of righteousness” is actually “leads me in round-about paths until I find the right spot.” Sometimes going around in circles is what we need.

So here is my encouragement for you this day: trust the process. If you are hurting, let yourself hurt for a while, but not forever. If you have been grieving and find yourself laughing, enjoy your aching belly. The beauty of life is its complexity.

And know this – God is with us through it all.

Find Your Focus

If you do nothing else right now, take time to find a way to serve others.

I remember several years ago now I got into a debate with a friend of mine about which was more important – mission or worship & study.

At the time, being a young pastor in my first call, I towed the party line and said that of course worship and study were at the heart of all we do. 

It was the easy answer. It was the safe answer. It was also the wrong answer.

What I failed to realize at the time was the Jesus taught us that how we serve others is at the heart of what we do. It has always been at the heart of what God has done and called us to do. Worship and study, they are mere moments of respite to give us greater tools in order to fulfill our true calling.

Our world right now is in a tizzy. It feels as though everything is up in the air and it is difficult to gain focus. What is more, even in the midst of a global pandemic, the holiday season is right around the corner and that brings its own stressful busy-ness.

So here’s a thought: if you do nothing else right now, take time to find a way to serve others.

I learned from one of our church’s mission partners that many of the other faith communities in our area are withdrawing from the program that guarantees gifts for children at Christmas in our city due to the pandemic. We are not. That’s something that I can help with. And I’m seeing what else I can do. But my friends…

There are people who are hungry.

There are people who are cold.

There are people who need shelter.

There are people who are alone.

There are people who are afraid.

There are animals who need help.

And businesses around us are making it easy to help, too – if you don’t feel like going out of your way.

So I encourage you, I implore you, find some way to serve right now. It will center you. It will give you the balance you need. Because at the end of the day, that is the most important thing we are always meant to be doing.

Cheers!

Mercy, not sacrifice

The sacrifices Jesus speaks of in this passage are those that care nothing for love, but everything for showing off to make ourselves look pious, zealous, important, and noticeable. It’s honestly a form of gaslighting…

Have you ever noticed that each of the four gospels has a question it is highlighting? For the gospel of Matthew, the author is asking: all of you who have power, what are you going to do with it?

Keeping that in mind, when we look at this little snippet, which is actually a quote from the prophets, Jesus is pointing out that there really are two options for most of us on most days. We can be self-righteous martyrs or we can show mercy every chance we get.

Is it all about us? Or is it about caring for our neighbors?

This is in no way meant to denigrate true sacrifice, for even Jesus gave his life in service of love.

No. The sacrifices Jesus speaks of in this passage are those that care nothing for love, but everything for showing off to make ourselves look pious, zealous, important, and noticeable. It’s honestly a form of gaslighting.

That was never what Christ was about.

God wants us instead to focus on how we might show mercy – real love – to others. Every chance we get.

This can be in simple things: like taking others into consideration in how we carry yourself, what we wear on our bodies, and how we keep our distance in the midst of a pandemic. This can also be much more complicated things: like how do we show mercy to our neighbors and take them into consideration in the voting booth.

No matter what the circumstances, Jesus’ ultimate point here is that our focus is mean to be on serving others first – not on making ourselves look good or making sure we have an overabundance.

Focus on mercy, not sacrifice.

Now go and do likewise.

Go and Do Likewise

This is a very difficult command to follow. It may be simple. But that does not make it easy to live out…

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:29-37

This is perhaps one of Jesus’ most famous parables. And yet, in all of our retelling this famous story, we often miss its remarkably shocking nature. So let me see if I can set it in a modern context for us:

A man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead in the midst of a major city. Soon after, a young, hip, evangelical preacher sees the man and, not wanting to mess up his snazzy new jeans and spiffy shoes, he moves to the other side of the road where does not have to look at him. Not long after that, the head pastor of a large, main-line protestant church comes walking by and sees the scene as he approaches. Afraid of damaging his dapper clothes and being late for his next important meeting, he quickly scurries across the street and keeps moving. Then a woman in a hijab is walking by and sees the battered man on the side of the road. She goes immediately to him, assesses the damage, offers him water, and gets him to a hospital. Going even further, she leaves her own contact information to help with the bills if his insurance is unable to pay.

Now, who was the neighbor to that man?

Hopefully that gives us a little bit better idea of how earth-shattering this parable truly is.

What Jesus is trying to point out to the young man who is testing him by asking, “who is my neighbor?” is that everyone is our neighbor.

Every. Single. Other. Person. On this planet. Period.

It does not matter where they came from. It does not matter what they look like. It does not matter if they are part of your religion or another (because the Samaritans were certainly not a part of Judaism). It does not matter who a person is. Everyone is our neighbor.

This is a very difficult command to follow. It may be simple. But that does not make it easy to live out.

Thomas Merton once wrote, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” That is how we live out the parable of the Good Samaritan. That is how we live out the Gospel.

Now go and do likewise.

Don’t Turn Away

There are always Lazaruses at our gates. There is always someone in need nearby…

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’  But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’  He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke 16:19-31

One of Jesus’ parables from the gospel of Luke, the story of Lazarus is quite troubling for many of us who have never had to beg for food. It is an outright condemnation of those who intentionally turn their heads the other way when they see someone in need. What is more, there seems to be little hope…

Have you ever been on a mission trip?

When I was younger, mission trips with my youth group were the life-altering experiences that largely set me on the path toward God. There were other people and influences, of course. But those weeks spent away serving others, outside my comfort zone – they were the highlights of my young faith journey.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these trips. In fact, I highly recommend them, especially for young people and youth groups who need bonding time.

However, if the only serving of others we ever do is away from home, we have completely missed the message of the Gospel.

There are always Lazaruses at our gates. There is always someone in need nearby. Sometimes they look like people holding signs on corners looking for a bite to eat. Other times they look like strangers wandering our streets with eyes that cannot focus for all they have seen. And still other times they come to us truly begging for help with utilities or groceries or prescriptions.

Oh yes, there are countless ways Lazarus is with us.

Many of us may not realize it (or want to talk about it), but we often turn away. Whether out of pain or guilt or fear… we intentionally do not acknowledge the person in need.

In this parable, Jesus shows us what happens to those who continuously turn away from their neighbors. Because those who turn away from their neighbors are turning away from God.

For all of us who would follow God, follow Christ, it is ours to not only give to all who beg of us (yep, Jesus said that exactly), it is also ours to work together to see the sources of poverty eradicated. To see not only mouths fed, but also see people educated, living healthy lives, and able to joyfully contribute to society through work and more.

Jesus was about resurrecting the whole person. Not just the afterlife.

That is our call, too.

So where do you see Lazarus in your world? What can you do to serve them and all the Lazaruses at our doorsteps and around the globe?